Indicatives and Imperatives: Gospel vs. Moralism

Greg Strand – April 25, 2014 Leave a comment

One of the key truths of the New Testament and the gospel is the indicative of what Christ has done (a statement of fact, an indicative) and the command of what we ought to do (an imperative), and the importance of understanding the relation, the difference and the order.

For example, in Colossians 3:1-4 Paul writes, “since you have been raised with Christ, then seek the things above . . . set your minds on things that are above . . . for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God . . . you will appear with him in glory.”

Here are the indicatives in the passage, the statements of fact: “you have been raised,” “you have died,” “your life is hidden,” and “you will appear with him.”

Here are the imperatives, the commands: “seek” and “set.”

The importance of understanding the relation, the difference and the order is the difference between considering the Christian faith based on the gospel or moralism, with the former issuing in life, the latter resulting in death.

Here is how Douglas Moo helpfully explains this from Romans 6:1-14 in his excellent commentary The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 391:

Balance on this point is essential. “Indicative” and “imperative” must be neither divided nor confused. If divided, with “justification” and “sanctification” put into separate compartments, we can forget that true holiness of life comes only as the outworking and realization of the life of Christ in us. This leads to a “moralism” or “legalism” in which the believer “goes it on his own,” thinking that holiness will be attained through sheer effort, or ever more elaborate programs, or ever-increasing numbers of rules. But if indicative and imperative are confused, with “justification” and “sanctification” collapsed together into one, we can neglect the fact that the outworking of the life of Christ in us is made our responsibility. This neglect leads to an unconcern with holiness of life, or to a “God-does-it-all” attitude in which the believer thinks to become holy through a kind of spiritual osmosis.

Paul makes it clear, by the sequence in this paragraph, that we can live a holy life only as we appropriate the benefits of our union with Christ. But he also makes it clear, because there is a sequence, that living the holy life is distinct from (but not separate from) what we have attained by our union with Christ and that holiness of life can be stifled if we fail continually to appropriate and put to work the new life God has given us. Jeremiah Bourroughs, a seventeenth-century Puritan, put it like this: “…from him [Christ] as from a fountain, sanctification flows into the souls of the Saints: their sanctification comes not so much from their struggling, and endeavors, and vows, and resolutions, as it comes flowing to them from their union with him.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). This gospel is at the heart of our initial act of salvation and our ongoing “work[ing] out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12-13) as we are progressively transformed, i.e. sanctification (2 Cor. 3:18), into the likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:29).

As you ponder this in your own life and teaching, how do you understand these vital issues? As you think through your preaching, teaching and counseling, is it based on the gospel or moralism?

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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