David Murray wrote this in his review of Sinclair Ferguson’s new book, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification — “Ferguson focuses on passages that describe sanctification (the indicative) rather than command it (the imperative).” “This is not so much a ‘how to’ book as it is a ‘how God does it’ one.” His argument is that the New Testament is far more concerned with “shaping our understanding, so that a new life style emerges organically, than it is with techniques.” He is convinced that “a clear understanding of what the gospel is and how it works leads in turn to the development of new affections and a new lifestyle.”
There is something subtly disturbing about this take on sanctification. Indicative and imperative have become real buzzwords, at least in our church circles. The mantra is that indicatives must precede imperatives – and to that I can give a hearty ‘Amen!’ But more and more, it seems that the indicative has become the only aspect of any topic worth talking about, while bringing in an imperative is always met with the suspicion that you are somehow leaving out the over-riding indicative. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am all about the indicatives – salvation by faith, free grace, justification, being in Christ, and don’t forget the new creature that is the new us, and the Holy Spirit who empowers us. But I’m troubled that even after that foundation is laid, we are so reluctant to speak of imperatives. I fear that in recovering the essence of our life in Christ in the indicatives, we have systematically rooted out another just as essential aspect of our Christian life – the necessary fruit of obedience that flows from our position in Christ.
Indicatives and imperatives belong together, and in that order, but they can never be separated. Paul begins most of his epistles with doctrinal statements meant to cement our faith and motivate us to godly living, but Paul doesn’t just assume that if we know the doctrine (indicative), the practice (imperative) will follow. He spells it out – how we should live in the world, in our families, at work, in the church… And Jesus does the same. Consider this story from Mark 2.
And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. 3 And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. 4 And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. 5 And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”
Jesus first goes to the root of the problem and does that hard work of forgiving sins. This is the paralytic’s deepest need. But forgiveness is hard to see, and I would guess that the paralytic himself, along with Jesus’ critics, questioned his forgiveness and wondered how he could know that what Jesus said was really true. So to encourage the little sprout of faith, Jesus tells him to do something – something he is not able to do in his own power – get up and walk! Amazingly, he did it. And in ‘doing’ faith grew. As well intentioned as we may be in wanting to get the indicatives down first, we have to realize that sanctification is more like stairs than a helicopter ride to the high ground. The foundation is laid in our justification and forgiveness, but our faith grows incrementally with each step of obedience. If we wait to feel perfect assurance before we even try to act, we will never witness the power of God in us as we are enabled to do in His strength what we know is not in the realm of possibility in our own. The paralytic may never have walked if he sat there waiting to be assured about his forgiveness – but when Jesus said ‘walk’ he had the opportunity to see evidence that Jesus was who He said He was and could do what he said He could – Jesus could forgive sins – my sins.
The two big ‘I’ buzzwords – indicative and imperative – are relatively recent developments in the church. The distinction has always been there, of course. Without recognizing Christ’s work for us, it is meaningless to even attempt obedience. Without the new man created in us, walking in the Spirit is out of the question. Without the knowledge that the Body of Christ is one, how can we walk out the unity that visibly demonstrates God’s nature to the world?
But I have a problem with our current handling of this beautiful distinction. It is fashionable to lean so far to the indicative that we totally lose sight of the imperative, which drops off into obscurity or even oblivion. And this, I have concluded, is not by accident – seminarians are taught to always end with the ‘gospel,’ which usually means that you end on the note of what Christ did, not what we should do. The effect of this method is to reverse the order of the indicative-before-imperative model that we give so much lip service to. Our preaching paradigm is fighting our understanding of the relationship of faith (believing the indicatives) and works (carrying out the imperatives). So much preaching goes something like this: We run up on a command (imperative). We say, ‘Oh, but who could ever do that perfectly and in a manner worthy of salvation? No one! But thank God for Jesus who did it all for us, the unstated implication being that we don’t have to seriously try obedience – even if we in fact do have the foundational indicative prereqs – i.e. we are justified, have been made new creatures, are partakers of the divine nature, have the Holy Spirit indwelling us…
I have painted with a broad brush here, but I hope you see my dilemma. Where is there any real place for imperatives if we always rush to affirm the indicatives apart from any evidence of the power of God in our lives? Is there no room for asking God what we should do? Is there any room at all for ‘doing’ in the Christian life? I think so, but it is virtually impossible to talk about it without sounding ‘legalistic.’ The followup questions are always along the lines of ‘but that doesn’t save you, right?’ Of course our works can never save us, but why would someone who has been gloriously saved and forgiven of all his sins not want to do what pleases the one who gave everything for him? Do we believe that God the Father, who created us, and Jesus, the Son who died for us, are so peevish that nothing we could ever do would please them, and there is no point in trying? May it never be. If we believe that lie, we are far from acting like the sons we are.
Let’s not tear apart what God has joined together. When we accept the indicative, it changes us so that we want to obey the imperatives. When we are changed by the indicative, we have power to carry out the imperatives. When the indicatives really get ahold of our heart, we can only respond with abandon. Nothing matters but pleasing the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.