Completed by the Spirit Part 19: Imperatives Rooted in the Indicative

Ed Trefzger

Ed Trefzger

This is the 19th part of a series of posts adapted from a paper I presented at a New Covenant Theology think tank in upstate New York in July 2010.

We certainly are given imperatives — commands — in the New Testament. Indeed, many imperatives are included in Paul’s epistles.

But it is vitally important to understand that Paul’s imperatives are not in the form of laws, but are imperatives that are dependent upon the indicative of the gospel.

Professor and theologian Thomas Schreiner explains:

Paul’s exhortations do not fall prey to legalism, for they are rooted in his gospel and the promises of God. Another way of saying this is that the imperative (God’s command) is rooted in the indicative (what God has done for believers in Christ). Believers are saved, redeemed, reconciled, and justified even now, and yet we have seen that each of these blessings is fundamentally escahatological. Believers are already redeemed, and yet they await final redemption. Justification belongs to believers by faith, and yet they await the hope of righteousness on the last day (Gal. 5:5). Believers would not need any ethical exhortations if they were already perfected. But in the interval between the “already” and the “not yet,” ethical exhortation is needed. If the priority of the indicative is lost, then the grace of the Pauline gospel is undermined. The imperative must always flow from the indicative. On the other hand, the indicative must must not swallow up the imperative so that the latter disappears. The imperatives do not compromise Paul’s gospel. They should not be construed as law opposed to gospel. The imperatives are part and parcel of the gospel as long as they are woven into the story line of the Pauline gospel and flow from the indicative of what God has accomplished for us in Christ.[1]

Schreiner gives two examples of imperatives rooted in the indicative of the gospel. He points first to 1 Corinthians 5 in which a man has been caught in sexual immorality with his father’s wife. Beginning in verse 6:

[6] Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? [7] Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. [8] Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6–8)

Schreiner notes that there is a coordination between the indicative and the imperative. Paul commands the Corinthians to remove the man from the church because toleration of sin corrupts the entire church. He exhorts the church to “clean out the old leaven,” but grounds it in the words, “as you are really unleavened.”

The indicative of the church as believers being free from evil demands the action to make it a reality in the here and now.[2]

Schreiner’s second example is Philippians 2:12–13: “[12] Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, [13] for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

A quick read of verse 12 would suggest that we are to save ourselves, but Schreiner explains that while the passage reveals that obedience is necessary for salvation on the last day, “The imperative is grounded in the indicative. … All human obedience testifies to God’s power and grace in the lives of his people.”[3]

Next: Completed by the Spirit Part 20: A Pattern of Indicative-Powered Imperatives

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[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 656.
[2] Ibid., 656–7.
[3] Ibid., 657.

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