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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

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