There has been a disagreement in the christian community about whether we should emphasize indicatives or imperatives to help people become more like Christ. Or, to what degree should we emphasize one over the other? Definitions at this point may help.
Biblical indicative – A statement of fact. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Romans 5:6
Biblical imperative – A command to be obeyed. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Romans 12:14
I will be leaning heavily on and quoting directly from “Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives” by Robert Kellemen to answer this question; how do we become more like Jesus Christ?
One approach has been the gospel indicative approach, which in its extreme seems to emphasize that sanctification entirely or almost exclusively involves the work of God, where our only “role” is to remember and re-believe what God has already done for us in the gospel (gospel indicatives). The other approach has been labeled the gospel imperative approach, which in its extreme seems to emphasize that sanctification, while always initially the work of God, primarily involves our active effort to change as we obey the commands of God (gospel imperatives). P.254
As you think through these theological issues you will come to realize what a enormous difference it makes in how a person counsels, disciples and preaches. Have you ever heard someone preach but they rarely emphasized the work of Jesus Christ on the cross and how it sustains and empowers us? Great recipe for burnout and fatigue. Or, the preaching that continually points to the cross and our justification but never goes on to explain how we put off our old self and put on the new (Ephesians 4:22-24)? Great recipe for confusion when it comes to living out our faith in everyday life. For my money there needs to be a balance. A balance, I believe, that we see in Scripture between the indicatives and the imperatives.
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.
The New Testament gives us commands, and these commands involve more than remembering, revisiting, and rediscovering the reality of our justification. We must also put on, put off, put to death, strive and make every effort…Yes this effort is always connected to gospel grace. But we cannot reduce effort to simply believing in justification. P. 258, Kellemen quoting Kevin DeYoung
Clearly Paul (and the collective testimony of Scripture for that matter) does not shy away from talking about effort and our need to pursue Christ. “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29). “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14). “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:27).
Yet at the same time our “effort” must flow out of an deep understanding and gratitude for what Jesus did on the cross and the fact that our life is now hidden in him.
Obedience is hard, yet God seems to make it a lighter load by the renewing of our mind and a greater understanding that we are in this world but not of this world.
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