The greatest tension in the New Testament is between the indicative (what God has already done and what is already true about us) and the imperative (what remains to be done as we respond to God by faith and obedience in the power of the Holy Spirit). That tension can be seen in verses like Romans 6:6: “Knowing this that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.” You have to know and believe positional truth in order to successfully progress in your sanctification. Positional sanctification is the basis for our progressive sanctification.
The balance between the indicative and the imperative is about equal in Scripture, but I have not observed that balance being taught in our churches. We seem to focus more on the imperatives, i.e. instructing believers what they must do instead of balancing that with what God has already done. Many people attend evangelical churches for years and never hear enough positional truth to understand that they are children of God who are alive and free in Christ.
Vos says that the heart of legalism is when we separate the law of God from the person of God. And what we have got then are bare imperatives that don’t have an indicative that will sustain them.
God himself in his grace, love, kindness, and generosity was the indicative that would have sustained the imperative of “Don’t eat the fruit of this tree.”
The gospel of grace is all about the indicative. That is, the gospel is all about what is already done, what is already true. Contrast this with the imperative, or what one ought to do. Scripture contains both the indicative and imperative. A preacher ought to preach both. Paul clearly preached both. But it’s not just about anyhow preaching both so that we get a balance of both kinds of messages. Rather, I think it’s extremely important to be able to bring out the clear relationship between the two.
It’s my understanding of how both of these kinds of passages interact with each other and play out in the Bible that gives rise to 1) my appreciation of New Creation’s constant focus on the indicatives – I appreciate this so much simply because I feel every other church I’ve been to over-emphasizes the imperatives 2) my concern for what I feel is New Creation’s under-emphasis on the imperatives (the imperatives are very seldom preached at all), which I think is an over-reaction towards the other churches’ over-emphasis on the imperatives.
I hope to do a little series on this issue. Like I said above, I think this gets to the heart of why I appreciate New Creation so much – and why New Creation’s preaching has transformed so many lives -, yet this issue also relates to my biggest criticism of New Creation.
As I’ve always believed and I’ve constantly mentioned, history is full of over-reactions. This is clear in the history of the world, the history of Christianity and the history of ideas in any discipline. It’s no different with what we’re talking about here. The way I see it, in reaction to most church’s constant focus on the imperatives, New Creation has over-reacted and gone the other way. It’s beautiful to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ (the message of the indicatives of Scripture) being preached so clearly every time. It’s especially beautiful in the light of the fact that so many churches preach what New Creation would call “mixture”. It’s beautiful to hear the preaching in New Creation when we take into account the way the imperatives are constantly (over)-emphasized (wrongly) in most churches today. But the Bible and Paul clearly preached both the indicatives and also the imperatives. The message to the church was both “It is done” (indicative) and “Do” (imperatives). But this was no “mixture”. The “Do” had nothing to do with earning one’s salvation or earning God’s favour. The “Do” had everything to do with because it’s already done, because we’ve already been saved in Christ, because we’re already favoured in Christ – i.e. we do because it is already done. There is thus a proper way – the biblical way that Paul used – to preach both the indicatives and imperatives that avoids “mixture” and legalism. It is simply in grounding the imperatives in the indicatives, or what Sinclair Ferguson alluded to: making sure your imperatives are sustained (and empowered) by the indicatives.
Despite mostly agreeing with his other sentences above, I’d probably like to take a bit of issue with this sentence by Neil Anderson: “The balance between the indicative and the imperative is about equal in Scripture”. As I said, I don’t think it’s about balancing the quantity of the indicatives and imperatives in one’s preaching (if indeed he’s suggesting something like that), so much as it is about understanding the proper relationship between the two. But if we want to talk about quantity, I would argue the Bible leans more towards emphasizing the indicative than the imperative. I would argue this not from counting how many passages deal with the indicatives and how many deal with the imperatives. Rather, I think it’s important to see things from a bigger perspective. Viewed from a big picture perspective and from the history of the God’s redemptive plan for mankind, it’s all about the indicative. That is, the whole Bible is about getting us to see what God has done for us in Christ. God’s mission in this world is all about Jesus’ death and resurrection. The most essential message in the whole of the Bible is the gospel (His death and resurrection) of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:3). That is the dominant message, the most important message. In a sense, the Bible is one grand indicative. That is so clear. And those who still think that Christianity is all about what we do for God or even our response to what God has done for us in Christ have totally missed what Christianity is all about.
Therefore, while I don’t think New Creation is as balanced as Paul in its preaching, if I had to err on either side, I’d rather err on the side of over-emphasizing the indicatives and the message of the gospel, than over-emphasizing the imperatives or what we have to do for God.