Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Indicative and Imperative in the Unfolding of Redemptive History

By Ben Zemmer

In order to understand the Bible, it is necessary to grasp the categories that rise up out of the Scripture itself (Horton, par.3). A primary example of this is the grammatical use of the Greek mood structure in the New Testament. In this structure, some statements are clearly declarations of fact or “Indicatives” while others are calls to action or “Imperatives” (Horton, par.3). In church history the word kerygma or “proclamation” has often been used to describe the indicative because God calls for His Word and definitive works to be heralded and proclaimed (Dodd, p.9). A clear example of this proclamation is the prominence of preaching in the Bible. Also, a common term in church history to describe the imperative is didache or “teaching” which connotes the practical outworking of the imperative (Dodd, p.10). The indicative and imperative structure is not only present in the Greek portions of Scripture, but can also be found interwoven all across the entire scope of redemptive history.

In fact, the greatest example of an indicative statement in Scripture is the gospel itself. The gospel is a glorious reality. Paul graphically describes the gospel as the “power of God” a phrase only used to describe Christ Himself (Romans 1:16, 1 Cor. 1:18). This should be of little surprise, because Christ is the essence and incarnation of the gospel. It is Christ’s completed work namely His life, death, resurrection, and ascension which composes the gospel. The gospel is Christ’s definitive work on behalf of His people bearing the wrath of God for their sin and imputing His complete righteousness to them. This grand exchange is a sealed and firm reality for the believer. It is the grand indicative statement of their new existence and identity in Christ.

The indicative nature of the gospel is not confined to the New Testament. Rather, from the very beginning of redemptive history, God has acted on behalf of His people in permanent and definitive ways which in turn pointed forward to the gospel. He called Abram from Ur. He brought the children of Israel out of Egypt. Yet, He did not stop with that. He gave Abram a faith in and a love for God that made him willing to relinquish his most precious possession – his son. He freed Israel from slavery that they might worship Him. Intertwined with new identity and reality were imperatives. God commanded holiness of His people in the law of Moses because He is holy. These commands did not exist separate from His work on their behalf but in the midst of it. This shadow of reality in the old covenant met its fulfillment in Christ. Christ completed all the demands of the law and God’s holiness on behalf of His people who now live in an “already but not yet” state (Ridderbos, p.257). Believers are complete and holy in Christ, but they await the final consummation of that reality. In the mean time, the imperative is a necessary component in the life of the believer (Schneider, p.656).

The call for holiness in the lives of His people echoes again in the new covenant (1 Peter 1:6). When Christ fulfilled the Mosaic law, He Himself become the standard of holiness “the law of Christ” (Schneider, p.661). As Schneider said: “Christ’s self-giving sacrifice functions as the paradigm of this law.” (Schneider, p.655). All throughout the gospels and the epistles are imperatives (commands) that are expected of believers, but these imperatives do not exist on their own. They always arise from the indicative, namely the gospel. Often in his letters Paul gives a command such as, “cleanse out the old leaven” and “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”, but they are always tied back to the gospel (the indicative) for example, “as you are already unleavened” and “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (1 Cor. 5:7, Phil. 2:12-13). As Schneider said, “the imperatives are part and parcel of the gospel as long as they are woven in to the story line of the Pauline gospel and flow from the indicative of what God has accomplished in Christ”(Schneider, p.656). Both conversion and the continued progress of believers in holiness are works of God in Christ, but they are experienced by the believer as belief, decision, and work (Ridderbos, p.255). “Having once died with Christ does not render superfluous putting to death the members that are on earth, but is precisely the great urgent reason for it” (Ridderbos, p.254). The indicative and the imperative are thus inseparable and intertwined.

To frame the indicative and the imperative as separate or loosely connected categories in Scripture, as some evangelicals today are in the habit of doing, is to sever the branch from the root. Indeed, an emphasis on the ethics of the Pauline letters and the New Testament as a whole without explaining their vital and intimate connection with the gospel is to create and encourage a “new legalism”. Rather, the indicative and the imperative, “represent two ‘sides’ of the same matter, which cannot exist separated from each other” (Ridderbos, p.256). The only means by which believers can ever hope to fulfill the imperatives is the power of the Holy Spirit applying the gospel, the Word of God in the heart of the believer (Schneider, p.662). It is truly the supreme joy of the believer to partake of Christ in the new obedience by faith through Christ’s finished work on the cross.

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