Indicatives and imperatives of the gospel

preachingUnderstanding the indicatives and the imperatives will help anyone identify what is effective and empowering preaching and teaching of the gospel. This is something many believers and preachers miss. Their criteria of good preaching hinges too much on peripheral issues of structure and style. What is crucial is the content. It distinguishes us from the professional motivational speakers, religious gurus and politicians.

Nowadays there are a great deal of “How to…” messages which give instructional, moralistic, practical, Readers Digest type advice albeit with a Christian makeover. While I admit there is a place for this, the diet of God’s people has to be balanced with apostle Paul ’s order of indicatives(what God has done for us) before imperatives(what we therefore ought to do in response).

Most churches in Singapore preach the imperatives and the result is that Christians may mistakenly or subconsciously think that Christianity is another set of do’s and don’ts like Buddhism, or Islam: a moralistic religion with pragmatic, adaptable and logical rules and advice for living.

One of the more insightful succinct books I have read on preaching is “A Primer for Preachers” by Ian Pitt-Watson, a Professor of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. I particularly like his emphasis that preaching the Good News is founded on, and driven by the ‘indicatives’ (who God is and what He has done). Here is an extract:

What is preaching? It is procalmation, not just moralizing. It is Good News, not just good advice; it is gospel, not just law. Supremely, it is about God and what he has done, not just about us and about what we ought to do. Logically and theologically(though by no means always chronologically) preaching is about God before it is about us; it is about what God has done before it is about what we ought to do. Our self-understanding must flow from our understanding of God. When we speak of what we ought to do(as of course we must, our moral imperatives must issue from our knowledge of what God has done. Otherwise our imperatives are no more than pious moralizings that refuse to face the facts of life: “When I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach”(Rom 7:21). Or else, if the moral exhortations are seriously intended and seriously attempted, the consequence is simply to compound in our hearers their burden of guilt when, inevitably, they make the same desolating discovery that Paul made: “The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will”(Rom 7:19). Only through what God is and has done can I be what I ought to be and do what I ought to do. What I cannot do for myself, “what the law could never do, because [my] lower nature robbed it of all potency, God has done.” At heart, preaching is about what “God has done: by sending his own Son in a form like that of our own sinful nature”(Rom 8:3). That is the gospel.

The practical consequences of these theological conclusions are of immense importance to the preacher. Now that the “what?” question has been faced, the “how do you dos” of preaching can be answered with more confidence. If preaching is to be proclamation and not mere moralizing, then the ethics of our preaching must be rooted in the theology of our preaching. We cannot make sense of who we are and what we ought to do until first we know who God is and what he has done in Jesus Christ. The Christian ethic, severed from its theological roots, is no more than a new law, more demanding and therefore more burdensome than the old. That is why it is always so clear in the letters of Paul that the ethic flows out of the theology. We can be what we ought to be and do what we ought to do only because of what God is and has done. The theology empowers the ethic; it does not just accompany it with an encouraging, heavenly-father pat on the back. For every imperative of the Christian ethic there is an empowering indicative of Christian theology. In the Sermon on the Mount the imperatives are indeed there and inescapable in their demand. But they are more than imperatives; they are descriptions of life in the kingdom of God, indicatives of that kingdom. Perhaps that is why the Sermon begins, not in the imperative mood speaking of how things ought to be, but in the indicative mood speaking of how things are. “How blest are those who know their need of God; the kingdom of heaven is theirs”(Matt, 5:3). This is how things are in the kingdom that in Christ is already in our midst. People are happy(makarios) with the special kind of happiness that comes from God alone. The most surprising people are happy in the most surprising circumstances. They are not told to be happy or trying to be happy. They just are happy. The blessed indicative of the Beatitudes precedes and empowers the demanding imperatives of the kingdom that are to follow.

“Don’t preach!” means “Don’t just tell me what to do; help me to do it.” That is precisely what authentic biblical preaching is all about. It is about action enabled by insight, imperatives empowered by indicatives, ethics rooted in theology, “what we ought to do” made possible by what God has done. (p21,22)

3 thoughts on “Indicatives and imperatives of the gospel”

  1. Good to see this re-posted 🙂 I won’t say much here because I’ve written so much on my blog regarding this topic. But those who can properly distinguish between the imperative and the indicative are deserving of the title of doctor of Scripture as Luther puts it 🙂

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