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.