Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Two Little Words

There are two little words that every preacher should know, remember and reflect on in preparation for his message: indicative and imperative. They should, to riff off the creed of Chalcedon, hang together "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of [the two] being in no way annulled by the union."

On his blog, Micheal Bird points to a helpful article in Christianity Today "Christ-Centered Cautions" by Collin Hansen. Both give nods to an essay in the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology entitled "Christ-Centered Interpreation Only? Moral Instruction from Scripture's Self-Interpretation as Caveat and Guide" by Jason Hood (summary here). It looks like it is going to be a must read. I am generally favorable to a Christological method in preaching but I too have noted the dangers of failing to see that the NT uses the OT as an example for us.

Hood's own summary statement is right on, in my estimation:
If Scripture is to be the guide for Christian interpretation, its explicit statements of intent and patterns of interpretation modeled therein reveal that Christian preaching not only may but must feature moral exhortation. Therefore, Christ-centered interpretation that overlooks, explicitly excludes, or denigrates the use of moral examples and moral instruction in preaching requires considerable modification.
I cannot help but wonder if some of the abuse arises not from so seasoned preachers--indeed even those seasoned in a Christocentric model--but from those new in the method or new in preaching is general. I raise this question not to deflect valid criticism but because while I recently heard Phil Ryken speak on preaching from the Old Testament, he was clear that the OT gives us examples. In fact, session two was on preaching Christ from the Old Testament and session four was on preaching the Christian life from the Old Testament. I don't doubt that some abuse Christocentric preaching and indeed such abuse should be countered lest the pendulum swing to far the other way.

The Reformed concept of Law and Gospel cannot neglect the third use of the Law in preaching. By way of example, in a recent sermon on the ten commandments I noted:
The law is like chemo therapy. It pronounces death. It is not the cure. The pronounces a curse on sin. In Leukemia patients chemo is used to kill the patients bone marrow. But the patient has no bone marrow. They cannot live. They need a bone marrow transplant. The law kills and pronounces death on our sin. But in the Gospel Christ pays for that penalty. From Him we get a bone marrow transplant. He gives us a new heart. That heart is not dead—it is not condemned by the Law. Instead it has the law written on the heart. It is a heart that sings the tune of God. When the heart is set alive, it truly is ‘reviving to the soul’. We can look and say ‘I love your law’. It is the heart of Psalm 119.
As Michael Bird notes: "There is undoubtedly two epochs of Law and Christ (Gal. 3.10-14 and Rom. 3.21), but they are part of a single story in which there are continuities and discontinuities and focusing on the discontinuities seems like an odd thing to trump out twice on Sunday."

Which brings us back to my original point: there are indicatives and imperatives in Scripture. I can remember a discussion with a leader in a particular church once where the person wanted to hear more about what he should go and do at the end of my sermons. His contention was that we unless we are given something specific and concrete to go and do that week, I have not applied the passage. This strike me as rather reductionistic and sort of--an apple a day keeps the minister (or the devil?) away. But preaching should shape us more deeply. You can circumvent the inward power of the Spirit by propping up the listener with a simple: "do this and you'll be fine". That leads to the moralism the Christocentric crowd is worried about.

In walks indicatives and imperatives. Indicative is a mood in grammar that represents a state or object as an object fact. "Johnny ran/is running the race" are indicatives. Imperatives are commands: "Run the race, Johnny". In theology, the gospel is indicative: Jesus died on the cross. It brings an indicative upon the individual: we are justified in Christ and have no condemnation. The gospel message itself, being the power of God, forms into something: this is who we are by virtue of our union with Christ. The transformation of the gospel, that we have died and risen with Christ (indicative) brings imperatives: put to death the flesh, walk in holiness, be a slave to righteousness.

At this point, we should give a shout out to Herman Ridderbos speaking of Paul, particularly the moral content of Paul's preaching:
"Again it is primarily a matter of the inner relationship and structures of his preaching and doctrine. We face here specifically [in an attempt to deal with the moral content of Paul's preaching] the phenomenon that in the more recent literature is customarily designated as the relationship 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 spoken of a dialectical paradox" and of an "antimony". (Paul: Outline of His Theology, 253)

Isn't that the balance a preacher wants? Moral forcefulness and exhortation: yes. Exalting in God's glory and the triumph of the gospel? Yes. Even more, the gospel rightly understood cuts down boasting and says I bring nothing morally to the table. But if the gospel is the power of God that effectively accomplishes my salvation and leaves me with no works or righteousness to contribute to salvation, doesn't that undermine ethics and behavior? Men from the ranks of Pelagius through to Charles Finney thought so.

If grace is free and unmerited, shall we go on sinning so that grace may abound? Or more colloquially is the little rhyme:
"Free from the law O' Blessed condition, we can sin as we want and still have remission".
Of course, this isn't the gospel either. But how does a preacher bring moral force without undermining the gospel? Enter: indicatives and imperatives. Use them '"without confusion, without change, without division, without separation;"

Imperatives alone without the indicative are nothing other than moralistic--the best we can hope for is condemnation of the law. Indicatives are the gospel--but they also empower good and necessary imperatives. The more I grasp the indicatives of the gospel the more I am able to make good and proper imperatives. A tree is known by it's fruits. We can have all the indicatives we want ('who we are in Christ') but their reality in our lives are displayed by our walk. Hence the preacher should and must bring imperatives.

Some guidelines for indicatives and imperatives:
  1. Indicatives must flow from imperatives in the grand scope of things (by nature of a text some sermon might be weighted more to one side--but do not neglect say indicatives just because a passage is in its context a command).
  2. The goal of transformation has to flow from a changed heart. You want the gospel to do the cleaning so that the outside reflects the inside. Don't let your sermons create a bunch of whitewashed tombs.
  3. Teach people why they should behave a certain way (flowing from God's love and gospel indicatives). What is most effective with your children: simply commanding them to obey or teaching them the beauty of obedience and the rationale for your commands?
  4. While it is appropriate to give specific suggestions on something a person can specifically do--e.g. serve in children's church--do not guilt trip people who cannot do that or create Christian who treat your application as a sort of ex opere operato for sanctification.
Two little words: indicative and imperative. They should go together in the scope of your preaching ""without confusion, without change, without division, without separation." If we as preachers meditate on this for a few moments I think we will find that this actually a faithful application of the New Testament, particularly the Apostle Paul, to our own method of preaching.

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