Thoughts on New Creation Church – Balancing the Indicative and the Imperative – Part 2

Continuing on from Part 1, here’s a beautiful passage from Elyse Fitzpatrick’s Because He Loves Me (p. 110-111) on the relationship between the indicative and the imperative and how the latter is grounded in the former. It’s worth reading in its entirety:

[The relationship between the indicative and the imperative can be] summarized in the simple phrase ‘Be who you are.’ When theologians talk about the two categories we’re about to discuss, sometimes they use these words: the indicative and the imperative… When I use the term indicative I’m talking about what has already been indicated or declared about you. The indicative informs us of an accomplished fact. Here’s an indicative statement: “God in Christ has forgiven you.”

On the other hand, the imperative comes to us in the form of a command or direction. In Ephesians 4:32, Paul gives us this command: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” The New Testament is filled with the imperative: we’re commanded to live changed lives.

The beautiful balance between the indicative (who you are in Christ) and the imperative (who you’re becoming in Christ) is perfectly demonstrated in the verse we’ve been considering. The entire verse reads, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Can you see how the imperative, “Be kind, tenderhearted and forgiving,” is firmly anchored in the indicative, “you’re forgiven in Christ”? This verse demonstrates a beautiful synergy that not only tells us what to do, but also plants within our souls the only motive that will empower God-pleasing compliance: what God has already done. We’ve already been forgiven in Christ. So many of us cavalierly gloss over what he has done and zero in on what we’re to do, and that shift, though it might seem slight, makes all the difference in the world. Our obedience has its origin in God’s prior action, and forgetting that truth results in self-righteousness, pride, and despair.

In some cases, the New Testament writers couple indicative statements with both negative and positive imperatives, in other words, commands to stop doing one thing and to start doing another. For instance, we might read this kind of a statement: Because such-and-such is true about you (the indicative), you should put off this kind of behavior (the negative imperative) and put on this kind of behavior in its place (the positive imperative). Let me give you an example of this from Colossians 3:

If then you have been raised with Christ [the indicative], seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above [a positive imperative], not on things that are on earth [a negative imperative]. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory [the indicative]. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you [a negative imperative]. . . .Put on then [a positive imperative], as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved [the indicative], compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other [a positive imperative]; as the Lord has forgiven you [the indicative], so you also must forgive [a positive imperative]. (vv. 1—5, 12—13)

Through the use of this indicative/imperative paradigm, I trust that the relationship between who you already are and how he has called you to live has become clearer to you and that it will be a tool you’ll be able to use as you study Scripture in the future.

(In this series: Part 1, Part 3)

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3 Comments

  1. I love this article! It makes the relationship between the indicative and imperative so clear. Thanks!

    In fact, I love it so much that I’m gonna reproduce this on my blog to share with more people ;-)

  2. Are the imperatives really imperatives when we consider this verse?:

    Philippians 2:13
    for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.

    How can an imperative be an imperative if it is really God who wills you to do what he wants you to do?

  3. Hi Andrew, I think this gets into the mystery of God’s sovereignty and human’s responsibility. When the Bible exhorts / commands someone to do something, it doesn’t mean that we do it apart from God’s help and enabling and grace. And if we acknowledge that it’s God that enables us, it doesn’t mean we wait passively for Him to change our desires before doing anything.

    As John Piper said here:

    This might seem so obvious that it wouldn’t need mentioning. But it does because there are some who say that since Christ is supposed to live his life through you (“I am crucified with Christ. It is no longer I but Christ who lives in me.”), you should not do anything—that is, simply wait until you are, as it were, carried along by another will.

    Well this is simply not what the Bible teaches. The Spirit of God does not cancel out our will. The work of God does not cancel out our work. The Spirit transforms our will. And God works in us so that we can work. So Philippians 2:12-13 says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

    When you have admitted to God that you can do nothing without him, and prayed for his help, and trusted his promise, then go ahead, ACT! And in that act Christ will be trusted, you will be helped, others will be served, and God will get glory.

    While generally agreeing with what Piper says above, I do think there are times when heavy addictions, bondages or sin patterns are not so easily overcome by merely exhorting a person to work out in obedience. Sometimes, our response to exhortations may result in us trying to use our will and human efforts to change – i.e. behaviour modification – and this will fail and not result in true lasting change. As David Powlison, a gospel-centered biblical counselor, writes:

    No one can truly change who does not know and rely on gifts from the hand of the Lord. Since Christ is both Giver and Gift, attempts to change without grace are barren of the very purpose, power, and Person that change is about. Self-manufactured change does not dislodge almighty me from the center of my tiny self-manufactured universe. Still in the futility of my mind and the hardness of my heart, I only act a bit different.

    Successful living without grace describes mere self-reformation: get your act together, save your marriage, get off your duff and get a job. Failure in living describes failed self-efforts: when you can’t get a grip, you despair. Christless, grace-less attempts at change conclude either with the praise of your own glory or with your shame.

    I think there’s a fine line between someone using one’s will and human effort and someone working out in obedience according to Philippians 2:13. And I wouldn’t claim to know where that fine line is!

    On one hand, I’m uncomfortable when people from New Creation or other churches accuse preachers who exhort the congregation to obey God (using the imperatives of Scripture and hopefully grounding it in the indicatives) of preaching change by self-efforts. I don’t think this accusation stands because that seems to be Paul’s model. On the other hand, I do recognize that many Christians have tried to overcome this or that sin through actively overcoming but have failed. And it’s only when they meditate and behold the beauty of Jesus Christ and His love for them do they finally find freedom. That is, it’s not through “working out” or “trying harder” in an active sense but through beholding and receiving in a more passive manner till their addiction finally breaks and they find freedom. That’s something beautiful I find in the testimonies of many Christians in New Creation. I’m especially encouraged by Pastor Joseph Prince sharing testimonies of how Christians, while confessing they are the righteousness of God in Christ even in the midst of their sin, eventually find true freedom and liberty from their addictions and sin – where before their striving to overcome addictions resulted only in failure.

    So it seems that sometimes the “letting God transform me and give me grace” part happens simultaneously as the “actively working out in obedience” part. But for greater addictions, there seems to be a more chronological relationship – the former part occurs first, then the latter.

    Just some observations and stuff I’ve been thinking about since attending New Creation. Would love to write a post on this one day and see what others have to say.

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