Indicative and Imperative by Herman Ridderbos

The preceding discussion has made clear how much the new life is a work of God. This life finds its origin in the death and resurrection of Christ, comes into being through the Holy Spirit, and in its realization in the individual man is new creation, regeneration, etc., that is to say, the fruit of the working of divine power. The farthest thing from the apostle's mind is the notion that this new life is to be explained on the basis of man himself, as an ethical transformation that is realized from the slumbering powers for good in him and which thus can be denoted as a new birth and can be related to the death and the resurrection of Christ by way of resemblance. On the other hand, it is evident that this new life is not to be understood as a transcendent stream of life that pours into man from the outside and which develops in him eo ipso and whereby there would no longer be any place for human responsibility and decision in the real sense of the word.1 For Paul also describes the new life in all sorts of ways as the new humanity, the illumination of the nous, the renewal of the heart, and as the body and the members becoming subservient to the will of God. This nature of the new life has become clear to us in particular from the significance of faith in it, as the way in which the new creation of God is effected and communicated in the reality of this earthly life, and is to be characterized as new obedience. From this same point of view we shall now attempt to deal with the moral content of Paul's preaching.

Again it is primarily a matter of the inner relationships and structures of his preaching and doctrine. We face here specifically the phenomenon that in the more recent literature is customarily designated as the relation of the indicative and imperative. What is meant is that the new life in its moral manifestation is at one time proclaimed and posited as the fruit of the redemptive work of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit — the indicative; elsewhere, however, it is put with no less force as a categorical demand — the imperative. And the one as well as the other occurs with such force and consistency that some have indeed spoken of a "dialectical paradox" and of an "antinomy."2

This confluence of indicatives and imperatives is so general in the epistles of Paul (as in the whole of the New Testament3) that we may confine ourselves to a few characteristic examples. So far, first of all, as the relationship of Christ's death and resurrection is concerned, the indicative is here fundamental, that those who are in Christ have died to sin (Rom. 6: 2). This whole pronouncement, however, is directed toward stimulating human responsibility and arousing to activity: "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body... and do not present your members any longer as weapons of unrighteousness in the service of s i n . . . " (vv. 12, 13). The redemptive indicative of dying and rising with Christ is not to be separated from the imperative of the struggle against sin. No less striking in this respect is Colossians 3: 3ff., where in response to: "For you have died, and your life is hid in God, " the command at once resounds: "Put to death therefore your members which are upon the earth: fornication, uncleanness, " etc. Having once died with Christ does not render superfluous putting to death the members that are on earth, but is precisely the great urgent reason for it. The same applies to the categorical pronouncements concerning life in and by the Spirit. On the one hand it can be said of that life in the manner of the indicative: "the law of the Spirit of life has made you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and of death" (Rom. 8: 2, 9); on the other hand, in the manner of the imperative, which subsequently seems to make the first categorical redemptive pronouncement conditional: "so then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh: for if you live after the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you shall live" (vv. 12, 13). The imperative thus is founded on the indicative ("therefore, " v. 12). But the succession of the imperative is also a condition ("if, " v. 13) for that which has first been categorically posited with the indicative. In the same way the pronouncements in Galatians 4 and 5 which in a categorical manner attest to the receiving of the Spirit (4: 6ff.), being born after the Spirit (4: 28ff.), living by the Spirit (5: 25), are followed by the summons to walk after the Spirit (5:16, 25), and the warning not to go astray because God will not suffer himself to be mocked and what a man sows he will also reap, whether corruption from the flesh, or eternal life from the Spirit (6: 7ff.). And finally, so far as the pronouncements are concerned that have reference to the new life as a creation of God, here again we find the same duality. At one time it is said of the new man that he has been created in Christ (Eph. 2:15; 4: 24), and exists in him (Gal. 3: 28); then again, that those who are in Christ "have" (active) put off the old man and "have" put on the new man (Eph. 4: 21ff.; Col. 3: 9ff.); and this "putting on" of the new man now signifies receiving a share in Christ sacramentally through baptism (Gal. 3: 27); then again a mandate as the daily responsibility of the church: "But put on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 13:14).

Now as regards the relationship to each other of these two different ways of speaking, it is immediately clear that the imperative rests on the indicative and that this order is not reversible. For in each case the imperative follows the indicative by way of conclusion (with "thus, " "therefore"; Rom. 6; 12ff; 12: 1; Col. 3: 5, et al. ). In each case following the calling of the new life is set forth as the object of the positive redemptive pronouncements ("so that, " "in order to, " etc.; cf. Rom. 7: 4; 2 Cor. 5: 15, et al. ). The relationship intended here is surely given its clearest expression in Philippians 2:12f.: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. "

The word "for" in the second clause furnishes the ground for the appeal in the first. It is the same relationship and the same "for" that is met with in Romans 6: 14: "sin will not have dominion over you; for you are not under the law, but under grace. " God does not work and has not worked in his good pleasure because man has worked his salvation with fear and trembling. The contrary is true: because God works and has worked, therefore man must and can work. For God works in him what is necessary for his (human) working. The working of man, therefore, takes place "according to the working of Christ, which works in him in power" (Col. 1: 29; Eph. 3: 20), the good works they do have been prepared by God "that they should walk in them" (Eph. 2: 10), and the good work that God has begun in them he will carry on (Phil. 1: 6). What the new man manifests in new life, what he works or exhibits in fruit of the Spirit and good works, he works out of and by the strength of God, out of the power of the Spirit and by virtue of his belonging to Christ. There can be no doubt whatever concerning this relationship. Indicative and imperative thus do not represent a certain division of property in the sense that the indicative denotes the divine and the imperative the human share in the new life, or that the imperative arouses the believer to what God has done for him so that from his side, too, he not fail to give an answer. All this would set next to each other those elements in the gospel and in reality which lie in each other, and would thus lead to a new legalism. The imperative is grounded on the reality that has been given with the indicative, appeals to it, and is intended to bring it to full development.4


On the other hand, however, the following will have to be taken into consideration.

(a) When we say that the imperative rests on and appeals to the indicative this must not be taken to mean that the indicative vindicates a given situation that exists apart from the imperative and which only needs to be brought into action by the imperative. For the imperative not only has the function of bringing the new life denoted by the indicative to manifestation, but is also a constant touchstone for the latter. And that not only because it is the criterion for the right functioning and self-realization of the new life, but also because it repeatedly places the new life itself under the condition of the manifestation of life demanded by the imperative. Characteristic here is the use of the imperative as answering clause (apodosis) after a conditional first clause (protasis); thus, for example, in Colossians 3:1: "if you then were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above. " "If" in the first clause is certainly not merely hypothetical. It is a supposition from which the imperative goes out as an accepted fact. But at the same time it emphasizes that if what is demanded in the imperative does not take place, that which is supposed in the first clause would no longer be admissible5 (cf., e. g., Rom. 8: 9; Col. 2: 20; Gal. 5: 25).

This making of the indicative conditional on the execution of the imperative (cf. Gal. 6: 7ff. ) does not reverse the order and is likewise not intended only to unmask hypocrites. It applies as well to believers themselves. In the new obedience the new life must become evident, and without the former the latter cannot exist. The explanation of this relationship lies in the fact that the reality described by the indicative, however much to be appreciated as the gift of God and the new creation, yet exists in the way of faith (cf. above, Section 40); while, conversely, the execution of the imperative is not in the power of man himself, but is no less a matter of faith. Indicative and imperative are both the object of faith, on the one hand in its receptivity, on the other in its activity. For this reason the connection between the two is so close and indissoluble. They represent two "sides" of the same matter, which cannot exist separated from each other.

(b) This is not to say, however, that the imperative is only another form of the indicative, because the indicative denotes nothing other than the possibility which by the observance of the imperative must repeatedly be realized anew. According to this actualistic conception the new life consists only in actual decisions of faith, and a distinction can no longer be made between "life by the Spirit" (denoted by the indicative) and "walking by the Spirit" (demanded by the imperative);6 indeed, the Spirit himself would mean fundamentally"7 nothing other than the possibility of the new life unlocked by faith and would thus be described as "the power of futurity."8

But in this way the content of both the indicative and the imperative becomes denatured. The distinction between the two does not consist only in the fact that the former posits as a possibility that which is demanded in the latter. The indicative speaks of the new life also as an antecedent being; one is undoubtedly able to say (with Bultmann) that according to Paul this new life is genuine life precisely in the fact that it is active in the concrete possibilities of life,9 but it is no less true that (likewise according to the nature of real life!) it is determined in its decisions and expressions from within and — as the new life — has received the actual possibility for the new "walk" just through this inner reversal. One is doubtless not to conceive of this "life by the Spirit" as a state of being that exists separate from faith, but rather as a life by the same faith as that through which walking by the Spirit must take place. But it nevertheless represents a continuity, not only of walking, but also of a renewed nous and of an enlightened heart, in short, of a renewed manhood (cf. above, Section 39). And it is likewise the building up of this continuity of the new life that is advanced and demanded by the continuing imperative. For the content of the imperative, too, does not consist merely of actual decisions and "acts, " but is determined no less by the continuity and the progress of the new life as the upbuilding of the new manhood.

(c) By way of conclusion we may say that the imperative is grounded on the indicative to be accepted in faith once and for all and time and again anew. Because believers may know themselves as dead to sin and alive to God, they must present their body and their members to the service of righteousness. The imperative preaches rebellion against an enemy (sin), concerning which faith may know and must know again and again that it has been defeated. Thus, too, the relationship of the continual and the actual in the new life becomes clear. The new life is a life and not a succession of signs of life. Nevertheless it is not a dormant but a militant life, a life by faith. Where faith slackens, the situation of Romans 7 becomes actual once again. The imperative is only fulfilled when faith is vigilant, militant, sober (1 Cor. 16: 13; 1 Thess. 5: 6, 8ft; Eph. 6: 11ft). To that extent every imperative is an actualizing of the indicative. Yet it is not lost in that: it seeks the fruit of faith and of the Holy Spirit in sanctification (Rom. 6: 21, 22; Gal. 5: 22); it is directed toward the "more and more, " toward the increasing and abounding, toward the growth and progress of the new life (Rom. 5: 3; 2 Cor. 8: 7; 9: 8 f f ; 1 Tim. 4: 15).

This relation of the indicative and imperative is altogether determined by the present redemptive-historical situation. The indicative represents the "already" as well as the "not yet. " The imperative is likewise focused on the one as well as the other. On the ground of the "already" it can in a certain sense ask all things, is total in character, speaks not only of a small beginning, but of perfection in Christ. At the same time it has its basis in the provisional character of the "not yet. " Its content, therefore, is not only positive, but also negative. The paraenesis must also forbid, warn, indeed threaten (Gal. 6: 7ff. ). At the same time there is in the "not yet" the necessity for increasing, pushing ahead on the way that has been unlocked by the "already. " The whole character and content of the Pauline paraenesis and of the new obedience is contained in nuce in these different points of view.

From Paul: An Outline of His Theology by Herman Ridderbos

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