What God has joined together: indicatives and imperatives

By David E. Prince
Mar 10, 2014

D. A. Carson’s concern that conservative evangelicals may displace the gospel without disowning it, as stated in his book The Cross and Christian Ministry, is particularly applicable to expository preaching.

If a preacher exposits, verse-by-verse, books of the Bible focusing on moral, ethical, behavioral and attitudinal change, without mediating the meaning and application of the text through Jesus, he teaches a dangerous lesson -- even if he slaps a gospel presentation on the end. His message is that, while the gospel is necessary as the entry point, it is not at the center of daily Christian living.

Such moralistic preaching communicates that after believers walk through the gospel door, their focus should be keeping God’s rules, learning timeless principles, and noting which biblical characters to emulate and which to spurn. None of these concerns are the center of the biblical message.

Graeme Goldsworthy suggests in his book Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, that the reason this approach to preaching is prevalent and popular is because “we are all legalists at heart.”

No truths of Scripture are to be understood in isolation. It is possible to preach only true assertions from the Scripture and yet be misleading. When ethical and moral imperatives are proclaimed as sufficient, even abstracted from Jesus, the result is a crossless Christianity in which the central message becomes an exhortation to live according to God’s rules.

Hearers with a seared conscience may develop an attitude of self-righteousness, judging themselves as adequately living by God’s standards. Genuine believers with tender consciences may despair because they know they constantly fall short of God’s commands. In other words, preaching bare moral truths -- moralisms -- can drive people away from Christ. Such sermons are anti-Christian, even if the bare moral and ethical assertions are true.

In Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, Edmund Clowney makes a helpful distinction between what he describes as “truth to the first power” and truth realized in Christ, “truth to the nth power.” The difference between preaching the moral and ethical truths of the Bible and preaching bare moralism is found in whether the meaning of the biblical truth is contextualized by the gospel of the Kingdom. When preachers simply assume the gospel while preaching the imperatives of Christian living, the result is ever-increasing self-righteousness or despair in the hearers.

Jesus and his apostles confronted liberal Sadducees and conservative, legalistic Pharisees who had the same problem, albeit stemming from opposing directions. Both were pursuing religious justification and satisfaction centered on a moralistic grid rather than Christ.

In his 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen warned, “Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity -- liberalism is altogether in the imperative (what you do) mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative (what God has done); liberalism appeals to a man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.”

Machen’s critique is true of many today who gladly sign theologically conservative doctrinal statements and intellectually affirm the inerrancy of the Bible. Moralistic preaching abandons a central focus on the gospel and is unfaithful, whether the message affirms liberal or conservative morality.

Some have wrongly responded to the problem of moralistic preaching by asserting that preaching should focus altogether on the gospel indicative. One pastor told me, “We must preach the gospel indicative to transform lives and not the imperatives." I have also heard some pastors who regard accusations of antinomianism against their preaching as confirmation of their fidelity to the gospel, and reject the idea that biblical imperatives are given to encourage sanctified living.

The proper relationship between the gospel indicative and imperative is not to pit one against the other. Rather, it is to understand that their relationship is irreversible. The imperative rests on the foundational indicative and is consequential.

In his book By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, Richard Gaffin explains, “If it needs saying, Paul’s gospel, as gospel, stands or falls with the irreversibility .... But this irreversible relationship is an inseparable relationship. Paul, we may also generalize, never writes in the indicative without having the imperative in view, at least implicitly.” Faithful proclamation of the gospel indicative includes proclamation of the consequential imperatives. In Paul: An Outline of His Theology, Herman Ridderbos rightly asserted, “Indicative and imperative are both the object of faith, on the one hand in its receptivity, on the other in its activity. For this reason the connection between the two is so close and indissoluble.”

Gaffin also warns in the same volume, however, of the consequences of sermons that ignore either the indicative or imperative. “On balance, the imperative without the indicative leads into a soteriological legalism, to using the imperative either to achieve or secure one’s salvation; it makes Paul a moralist,” Gaffin wrote. “On the other hand, the indicative without the imperative tends to an antinomianism; it leaves us with Paul the mystic.”

We must reject simplistic abstract moralizing of the biblical text, but we must also approach the text knowing that faithfully preaching the gospel indicative requires proclamation of the consequential ethical imperatives.

The ethical imperatives of Scripture presented as a way of salvation are a corruption of the biblical witness. But, the person who has trusted in the gospel of Jesus Christ for salvation necessarily looks to biblical imperatives as the gracious guidance of their Savior and King.

Jesus did not simply come to usher in the salvation of isolated individuals, but to establish his Messianic Kingdom. In his person, the Kingdom of God was “already” at hand and yet it was “not yet” consummated. The redemptive historical reality of the already but not yet of the Kingdom of Christ means that he has already fully accomplished the salvation of his people, but his people in this fallen world have not yet completely learned how to conduct their lives “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14).

The gospel indicative makes genuine obedience to the ethical imperatives possible and ultimately inevitable (Rom. 8:29, Eph. 2:10). The one who is “in Christ” has been delivered from the vain attempt to obey the imperatives as a means of justification and now hears them as the guidance and direction of a perfectly loving Father (Gal. 4:6).

Delivered from the courtroom of God’s justice, the one who is “in Christ” now is adopted and takes his place in the household of God (Rom. 8:15, Gal. 4:5, Eph. 1:5, 2:19, 1 Tim. 3:15). For the believer, obedience is now a matter of becoming who you already are in Christ. A pastor who avoids preaching on ethical matters is preaching a truncated gospel.

As an outpost of the Kingdom of Christ, the church proclaims the gospel and demonstrates the reign of Christ through living out the ethics of the gospel of the Kingdom. The submission of the church to the Lordship of Christ is to be a constant reminder that the Kingdom has come and that the Kingdom is coming.

Without Christ-centered eschatology there are no ethics, just special interest groups. The gospel indicative tells us God will sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10) and the consequential imperatives call the church to do so right now. When the cruciform community confesses, “Jesus is Lord,” it makes its most vital theological, political and ethical statement and creates a context in which, the gospel that reveals “the righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:17) becomes intelligible.

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