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You may have seen Bill Evan’s recap and analysis of the sanctification discussion I’ve been a part over the past months. It’s a helpful summary and raises a number of good points. Later, on the same Ref21 site, Sean Lucas posted a friendly rejoinder. Without necessarily dissenting from Evans, Lucas argues that much of this discussion boils down to a matter of emphasis. This is the paragraph from Lucas that Justin Taylor highlighted on his blog:

I mention all of this to simply say: this is a historical disagreement. It is not recent, not the result of misbegotten, misspent fundamentalist childhoods, not the offshoot of strange Lutheran strains in a pure Reformed stock. I tend to think that the differences are simply matters of emphasis: some lead with imperatives and others lead with indicatives; but both sides hold the indicative-imperative relationship together. If we can recognize that the other “side” holds a legitimate perspective in the Reformed tradition that is largely a matter of emphasis, then we can approach each other with love, respect, and gratitude. We can avoid lumping them into pejorative groups (legalist, neo-nomian, antinomian, cheap grace, moralist), and we can recognize the temptation in our own approach that might lead us to become “imbalanced”—either by overemphasizing indicative to such a point that we fail to say what the Bible says in Colossians 3:5-17; or by overemphasizing the imperative to such a point that we fail to say what the Bible says in Colossians 3:1-4.

That’s a good paragraph. I agree that there is historical disagreement on some of these matters. The Reformed tradition does not always speak with one voice. I also commend Lucas’ exhortation to avoid “lumping” and employing pejorative labels. Finally, I’m sure Lucas is right that part of this debate comes down to a matter of emphasis.

But I’m not sure it’s only a matter of emphasis.

I have no problem with Christians emphasizing the indicatives. I often do. In fact, let me say this as plainly as possible: we ought to positively glory in the indicatives of the gospel. The indicatives ought to fuel our following of the imperatives. Our obedience must be grounded in the gospel. Sanctification is empowered by faith in the promises of God. We need to be reminded of our justification often and throughout our Christian lives. Our pursuit of personal righteousness will not go anywhere without a conviction that we are already reckoned positionally righteous in Christ. So let’s be passionately and repetitively gripped by the gospel of free grace.

I have no problem with that emphasis. Actually, I love it. But my question is whether we can emphasize all the glorious indicatives of Scripture and still insist on obedience to the imperatives. The phrase “insist on obedience” is key. I know that all my friends in this sanctification discussion believe obeying the imperatives is crucial. I know they want Christians to be holy. I don’t doubt for a moment that they think the imperatives of Scripture are really, really important. What I’m not clear on is whether my brothers and sisters in this debate believe we can explicitly and directly insist on obedience to those imperatives.

I’m not sure the issue is just emphasizing one or the other–indicatives or imperatives. There are at least two other issues at play.

1. Should Christians be exhorted to make an effort to obey the commands of Scripture or is the only appropriate exertion the effort to believe more fully the promises of God?

2. Should Christians be exhorted to obey the imperatives or does sanctification so invariably flow from justification that the way to get obedience is always and only to bring people back to the gospel?

I think everyone agrees that justification fuels our sanctification (see Rick Phillips’ post for an excellent summary of the differences between the two). Imperatives must be rooted in indicatives. The question, however, is whether we betray the indicatives by insisting directly and explicitly for Christians to work hard at obeying the imperatives. No ones denies that obedience to the imperatives is crucial. But can we demand obedience to those imperatives? Or is that falling back on law? The central question in this discussion is not just a matter of emphasis between the indicatives and imperatives, but whether emphasizing the indicatives accomplishes the goal of the imperatives without ever insisting upon them. Or to put it another way, is sanctification by faith alone in our justification by faith alone? I think not.

The last thing I want is to be the guy who says “stop making the gospel so important.” I never want to encourage people to emphasize the gospel less. But it is possible to emphasize the gospel in a wrong way. The Westminster Confession of Faith, after expounding that the law “directs and binds” us explains, “Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it” (WCF 19.7). Likewise, the Larger Catechism says the “moral law” is “of special use” to the regenerate because it shows, among other things, how they ought to take “their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience” (Q/A 97). And the Belgic Confession says about the law, “we continue to use the witnesses drawn from the law and prophets to confirm us in the gospel and to regulate our lives with full integrity for the glory of God, according to his will” (Art. 25). There is no degrading language here about falling back into law or moving beyond justification, no hint that the imperatives are only a concession to our unbelief. The Reformed confessions understand that obedience to God’s commands–which we all want–is not accomplished merely by insisting on indicatives, but also by insisting directly and explicitly on the imperatives that flow from them.


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69 thoughts on “Glorying in Indicatives and Insisting on Imperatives”

  1. Taylor says:

    Mitchell,

    I think we are climbing the same tree from two different sides.

    I would not say that someone can’t be of the flock in the midst of failure any more than Paul does. He writes Corinthians as if everyone reading believes. And he gives commands and instructions for life because of that faith. He even tells them to examine themselves.

    So I believe in one sense there is a way to quantify obedience. I do measure up, not because of me, but because of Christ. And I can also quantify the obedience Paul preaches to those called, it’s total. We agree that total obedience is a goal we won’t achieve until we are reunited with Christ. So, I do not for a second think that we can apply that quantification to the visible life of a believer and qualify them in or out of the kingdom.

    For that reason, the commands are to be obeyed not out of an expectation of their total fulfillment on earth, but out of gratitude, in imperfect service of our Master. And I guess that’s why I don’t mind pursuing obedience; because it’s not my measuring stick, it’s a part of my inheritance.

  2. Joshua Kezer says:

    Time to interject.

    If we reduce works to salvation, then we reduce it ourselves and to our own whims. The Scripture certainly doesn’t do that. Works are still asked of us, as Romans 12-15 and other New Testament passages make very clear. Our works do not save us. The works of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on the cross and in His resurrection save us. The Scripture shouts that from Genesis to Revelation. (Revelation 13:8. KJV). This is indicative. So, moving on, and …

    … now what?

    That’s what this whole debate centers around. The “now what?” It’s not really about works as opposed to grace in the Christian life. It’s never really been about that. Sure, it’s taken that appearance and form, as it should, but it’s not really about that. Well, I mean, it is and has always been about that, but the Church has turned the debate into a back and forth on salvation. It’s misguided and distracted. Salvation is obviously by grace through faith, not of ourselves. Ephesians 2 says so plainly.

    “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” 8-9

    Still, 1 John 1:9 finds it’s way into this. There’s a head scratcher, if someone had the inclination to scratch. Personally, I’ve always found it helpful, but what does it mean? I got an idea, but what do you think? Why must we ask forgiveness as Christians if works mean nothing? I think the answer to that question rests in relationship.

    So, again, I ask, now what? “Now what” refers to the period of our post repentance and acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Lord. This is imperative.

    It’s interesting how the same passage in Ephesians 2 that tells us that it’s not by works that we’re saved also tells us that we’re “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works”… 10

    Sections of the Church will not promote absolutes, others will over promote them. Rarely do we see a section that both promotes them and is balanced in them. Why? Because we don’t really want the light shined on our own faults [sins], so we either shine no light at all on controversial issues [sins or questionable content] or too much light on someone else’s. The bottom line, however, is that we know there are absolutes. The Bible is absolute.

    How does verse 10 fit in this discussion?

    Society has taken relativity upon themselves and the Church has followed suit. Society argues that everything is relative, but they know that’s just not true, as they rightly oppose murder, rape and other “crimes”. The very existence of law libraries, our courts and prisons prove this point. The Church claims to believe in the absolute truth of the Bible, but our modern, even historical, approach is relative on how to apply that belief. Interesting. We vehemently oppose sex slavery, racism, pornography, murder and drug abuse, but are afraid to do so with alcoholism, homosexuality at times and others. Just something to make you go hhhmmm.

    But before you think I’m swaying to one side too far, think again. I know I need Jesus to walk this out. Without Him, even with Him (Praise the Lord. 1 John 1:9), as the saying goes, I’m a “hot mess”. He’s my strong leader, guide, hope and guarantee for eternal salvation and success (1 John 2:1-2). I sincerely believe and lean heavily on Philippians 2:13.

    Agree or disagree? On which point? Why?

  3. Mitchell Hammonds says:

    Taylor,
    You can’t measure my “some obedience” and “some failure” which we all would agree describes humanity (I have to exclude Wesley and Finney perfectionism). I pursue obedience some and I pursue sin some. It comes down to desires and desires for the human fluctuate. Again, I’m not trying to glorify the fact we pursue sin at a given moment even as a redeemed person but a reality none the less.

    Eventually, one has to ask the question: “What about the times when I seem to be getting worse?” Atheists can obey every moral truth given… what they can’t do, I believe, is admit of their sinful condition and acts (repentance) and know also they’re forgiven in Christ. Further, Christ’s work is imputed to me as though I fully obeyed. It’s done… that’s they Good News.

  4. Taylor says:

    Mitchell,

    I guess I don’t see where we disagree on the majors. I don’t think in terms of measuring, because it’s been measured. I tend to think more in terms of our upward calling in Christ. Am I running well? Upward. Am I stumbling? Upward.

    In that sense, our only difference seems to be that I was once Mr. Grace Loving Antinomian (sadly, Elyse never responded when I introduced myself – she had said she wanted to meet me). I loved grace, but teaching grace doesn’t always transform. Sometimes we need to be reminded how union with Christ should work itself out in our lives. Look at the Corinthians.

  5. “The Reformed confessions understand that obedience to God’s commands–
    1) which we all want–
    2)is not accomplished merely by insisting on indicatives (the works of Christ),
    3) but also by insisting directly and explicitly on the imperatives (our own works)
    4)that flow from them (the works of Christ).

    Point 4) for Lutherans, would be the problem.
    this is to say that:

    1)our works (ie our right believing, thinking, emotional response and actions).
    2)flow , ALONE, from the works of Christ.
    3)and not from the Law that always accuses and drives Old Adam.

    Am I missing something?

    There is NO difference between the works of a christian and pagan.
    there is no difference in the Law as to what it is, demands or results in for pagan or christian.

    there is only ONE difference between a pagan and a christian. This difference is not in any way in what we can do, by better or more correct thinking,or feeling or even believing.

    The Law does not flow from the Gospel.

  6. better: “Good works that we can see and do on Earth, that conform to the Word of God (otherwise they would not be good works)do not flow from the Works of Christ.

    They flow from the SAME Goodness and Mercy that God works, without our prayer or worthiness even for all the wicked.

    “the rain falls on the just and unjust alike.”

    Christians do Good Works out of both the fear and love of God. not just the love of God. Where we lack sufficient love for God and neighbor (which is 100% of the time the bible says! Isaiah our best works in Christ are the moral equivalent of a used female hygene product), God will STILL work his Goodness and Mercy out of us .

    How? God promises to send punishments and sufferings and the government and a crying baby and a nagging spouse to make us do his Will that is to love others.

    Luke 18 and the story of the lawless judge nagged by a conscience dead to love tells us exactly how this works even in the Elect.

    Faith accepts suffering and does not flee it. but instead it hides it’s used-feminine-hygiene-works within the Works of Christ. So in the middle of suffering the conscience is at rest, and God is still the Object of Love.

    This is the meaning of “in Christ” everywhere.

  7. Lutherans have a name for this error:

    This error is people who say that the good works of a Christian “flow ALONE from” “Gospel” Imperatives, and no longer from the Law driving and extorting them out of believers have a name.

    Lutherans call such people “antinomians”.

    Not that I am saying that Kevin and the reformed baptists are antinomians. I am not saying that.

    I AM suggesting that what they are saying could easily be misunderstood by a casual reader to mean that.

  8. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Grow or Crash.

  9. John Thomson says:

    ‘Some of the older Reformed theologians represented the law and the gospel as absolute opposites. They thought of the law as embodying all the demands and commandments of Scripture, and of the gospel, as containing no demands whatsoever, but only unconditional promises; and thus excluded from it all requirements. This was partly due to the way in which the two are sometimes contrasted in Scripture, but was also partly the result of a controversy in which they were engaged with the Arminians. The Arminian view, making salvation dependent on faith and evangelical obedience as works of man, caused them to go to the extreme of saying that the covenant of grace does not require anything on the part of man, does not prescribe any duties, does not demand or command anything, not even faith, trust, and hope in the Lord, and so on, but merely conveys to man the promises of what God will do for him. Others, however, correctly maintained that even the law of Moses is not devoid of promises, and that the gospel also contains certain demands. They clearly saw that man is not merely passive, when he is introduced into the covenant of grace, but is called upon to accept the covenant actively with all its privileges, though it is God who works in him the ability to meet the requirements. The promises which man appropriates certainly impose upon him certain duties, and among them the duty to obey the law of God as a rule of life, but also carry with them the assurance that God will work in him “both to will and to do.”

    Berkof Systematics Law and Gospel

  10. Johh, see my most recent post. Law and Gospel.

  11. Brian W. says:

    In the words of my favorite preacher (Keller), “Jesus lived the life I should have lived and died the death I should have died”.

    Most of the church lives as if only half of that statement is true. “He died for my sins” they will proclaim without hesitation. But, they miss the fact that he lived a perfect life on our behalf as well. His perfect life on earth fulfilled the law that we never could! That’s the goods news, folks! That’s the really, really good news!

    How do we obtain His righteousness? By faith, the scriptures tell us. Do we obtain it by following Jesus’ own teachings contained in the Sermon on the Mount? NO! Or should I say, go ahead and give it you best shot! The law was given to reveal our sinful state. That is the same in both testaments.

    Look to Christ and be justified and sanctified.

  12. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    This excerpt seems applicable to this post and/or thread:

    “First, have this firm in your mind: the gutless-gracer insists that real, live, saving faith can exist in the heart of someone who never, ever gives the least bit of real-world evidence in his life and priorities and choices that actual conversion has taken place. In some invisible, inaccessible realm that no eye can see, there has been this massive shift — but observable history is absolutely innocent as to its occurrence. We just have to believe it’s there. It’s happened, because the professor says so, and the position dictates that it is so.

    And so when we look at the Bible and see that Jesus defines saving faith as necessitating submission to His authority (Lk. 6:46; Jn. 14:15; 15;14), that Jesus defines genuine discipleship as involving continuance in His word (Jn. 8:31-32), that Paul insists that it is both impossible and impermissible for a converted person to continue to live in practical denial of Christ’s Lordship (Romans 6), that John in his first epistle repeatedly emphasizes that genuine faith will necessarily involve doctrinal soundness and practical holiness, and that James laughs to scorn the notion that saving faith can produce no works — when we see all that, and look at the lives of these professed believers and see nothing like any of those evidences of genuine faith — we are required simply to “dumb down” the definition, in order to accommodate reality and save the theory.”

    Excerpted from here:

    http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2011/08/reformed-continuationists-and-gutless.html

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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