A friend of mine recently wrote this to me. How would you respond? “I’ve not heard many of the folks who focus on the indicative be very specific about how they handle the imperative in preaching and counseling. They keep saying, “Of course we believe in the imperatives…” Then what? It think it would be very instructive to have some “indicative folks” post specifics on how they preach and counsel with the imperatives. What is the role of the imperative in preaching, counseling, personal sanctification, etc.? What does it actually “look like” in real life ministry to build the imperatives on the indicative?
I wonder if this is quite fair. Speaking in my own defense, I’ve written a book on the application of the Ten Commandments to us today and I can’t think of any book I’ve written on the gospel that doesn’t include the claims of God’s law as well. When you’re trying to shift the focus, it’s easy for people to think that this is all you talk about in the pulpit or in counseling. However, when preaching through the whole of Scriptures—which full-time pastors are privileged to do—there’s no freedom to cherry-pick your favorite verses and emphases. To be sure, “the sacred writings…make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ” (2 Tim 3:15). Nevertheless, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (v 16). Containing both indicatives and imperatives, Scripture itself gives us what we need; our job is to make sure that we distinguish these and recall which does the saving work.
A while ago, our family was reading through Proverbs. What wonderful wisdom! I didn’t try to turn them into parables of the gospel. They were examples of the goodness of God’s law that is sweeter than honey from the honeycomb. And yet, many parallels (even nearly identical proverbs) can be found in non-biblical wisdom literature. We need wisdom for daily life. And yet, we must never confuse this with the gospel. Christ doesn’t just add a little secret wisdom to the storehouse; he “became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption…” (1 Cor 1:30). The main point of Scripture—the height of true wisdom—“is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). To say that is not to negate the more mundane forms of wisdom that we find in Scripture—or even among the world’s wiser sorts. It’s just to say that if the gospel isn’t true—and central—then none of that really matters at the end of the day. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
One of the concerns that’s been raised is that while many people seem to be reveling in the indicatives of the gospel (what Jesus has done) we are in danger of giving short-shrift to the imperatives (what we must do). I’ve argued that if someone is giving short-shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives, it’s because they are not glorying in the indicatives of the gospel. Their problem is not first and foremost that they aren’t giving full-throat to the imperatives. It’s that they’re not giving full-throat to the indicatives–that disobedience happens not when we think too much of grace, but when we think too little of grace. Do you agree?
Again, think of how Paul answers that in Romans 6. He doesn’t respond to the antinomian charge by saying, “Hey, the other side of this—just for balance—is that if you don’t turn over a new leaf, everything I’ve just said doesn’t apply to you.” Rather, he says, “Wait, there’s more yet to the gospel—more indicatives that you need to understand and embrace as applying to you.”
The Church of Corinth was a mess and Paul’s epistles were basically disciplinary. Nevertheless, before he goes to the specific charges of violating the law, he reminds them who they are in Christ. “Don’t you remember that while I was with you I preached nothing but Christ and him crucified?” Perhaps some of Paul’s agitators in Galatia would have replied, “Yes, indeed, and don’t you think that may have been part of the problem, Paul? After all, if you had preached more imperatives, they wouldn’t be in this mess.” Paul always believed that deeper immersion into the gospel is essential for the health of believers and churches.
At the same time, he never failed to follow up the indicatives with very clear, practical, and urgent imperatives. In my view, many evangelical churches—including many who claim to be Reformed—are very undisciplined. We mirror our democratic, individualistic and egalitarian society. It’s not just sound doctrine, but sound structures of biblical government, worship, catechesis, and nurture that will help recover a solid vision for the growth of the body.
While I believe that it’s generally true that those who are forgiven much love much and that those who are in view of God’s mercies will present their bodies as a living sacrifice, we have to recognize the deep depravity in our own hearts even as regenerate believers. Often I find myself reveling in the glories of the gospel for my own delight, oblivious to the “reasonable service” that it yields toward my neighbor. I can be writing a paragraph on the wonders of grace while I snap at my wife or children for interrupting me. We do need Christ to remind us, by his Spirit, through his law, that the gospel doesn’t stop at our own personal security and welfare, but drives us out to our neighbors in love and service. A good Shepherd guides his sheep. A good Father rebukes those whom he loves. We need to hear the very specific and uncomfortable rebukes of the law as well as the tender comfort of the gospel.
We always need the gospel wind in our sails and the directional equipment on our dashboard. Without the former, we’re dead in the water; without the latter, we’re blown all over the map.
I’ve argued that there is one primary enemy of the gospel—legalism—but it comes in two forms. Some people avoid the gospel and try to “save” themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they’re told, maintaining the standards, and so on (I call this “front-door legalism”). Other people avoid the gospel and try to “save” themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (I call this “back-door legalism”). In other words, there are two “laws” we can choose to live by other than Christ: the law which says “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I keep the rules” or the law which says “I can find freedom and fullness of life if I break the rules.” Either way you’re still trying to “save” yourself—which means both are legalistic because both are self-salvation projects. So that, what some call license is just another form of legalism. How would you respond?
Yes, that’s a great point, Tullian, and I hope everybody takes it to heart in this conversation. “Make a rule” or “break a rule” really belong to the same passion for autonomy (self-rule). We want to remain in control of our lives and our destiny, so the only choice is whether we’ll conquer the mountain by asceticism or by license. However, when Christ comes to us, he does not come to improve the old self, to bouy its self-confidence and encourage its pride. Christ comes to kill us in order to make us alive in him, as new creatures. The gospel is the answer both to the guilt and the tyranny of sin and other lords that cannot liberate but hold us to their breast in a death grip.
Thank-you, Mike, for taking the time to interact with me on these crucial topics. We are all grateful for your life and ministry.