Saturday, August 23, 2008

Be who you (already) are

Those who’ve spent any amount of time in the Adult Bible Education classes at Clearcreek Chapel will have heard us who teach say (time and again) that the relationship between indicative and imperative or the way the Pauline ethic is stated in the New Testament is this: Be who you (already) are. In one simple phrase, this captures the essence of how our union in Christ works itself out in our lives. Our identity “in Christ” will necessarily manifest itself in the fruit of the Spirit.

I rarely get jazzed about counseling books, save those that consistently have come from the pens of the Tripp brothers, Powlison, Welch, and “the other” Bob Jones. Over the years, especially beginning with Paul Tripp’s “War of Words”, the emphasis on biblical imperatives has been increasingly grounded in our union in Christ. The focus on the indicative has been increasingly pushed front and center to counter what in some instances has been an over-emphasis on biblical imperatives to the near exclusion of the indicative. Such an over-emphasis results in biblical counseling, grounded in Scripture no less, that amounts to little more than behaviorism. 12 steps has been morphed into 12 imperatives and slapped with the label “biblical counseling”.

There’s now a new book from Elyse Fitzpatrick that places the indicative squarely as the focus of the entire book. “Because He Loves Me: How Christ Transforms Our Daily Life” is about “be who you are”... in fact, it’s the focal point of the chapter on indicative-imperative; yes, Fitzpatrick dares to bring up these two theological terms in book aimed at “pop Christianity”. And she explains it better than I have on this blog (though those that know me know that I wouldn’t use the word “balance” :-)):

(The relationship between the indicative and the imperative) can be “summarized in the simple phrase ‘Be who you are.’ When theologians talk about the two categories we’re about to discuss, sometimes they use these words: the indicative and the imperative...When I use the term indicative I’m talking about what has already been indicated or declared about you. The indicative informs us of an accomplished fact. Here’s an indicative statement: “God in Christ has forgiven you.”

On the other hand, the imperative comes to us in the form of a command or direction. In Ephesians 4:32, Paul gives us this command: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” The New Testament is filled with the imperative: we’re commanded to live changed lives.

The beautiful balance between the indicative (who you are in Christ) and the imperative (who you’re becoming in Christ) is perfectly demonstrated in the verse we’ve been considering. The entire verse reads, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Can you see how the imperative, “Be kind, tenderhearted and forgiving,” is firmly anchored in the indicative, “you’re forgiven in Christ”? This verse demonstrates a beautiful synergy that not only tells us what to do, but also plants within our souls the only motive that will empower God-pleasing compliance: what God has already done. We’ve already been forgiven in Christ. So many of us cavalierly gloss over what he has done and zero in on what we’re to do, and that shift, though it might seem slight, makes all the difference in the world. Our obedience has its origin in God’s prior action, and forgetting that truth results in self-righteousness, pride, and despair.

In some cases, the New Testament writers couple indicative statements with both negative and positive imperatives, in other words, commands to stop doing one thing and to start doing another. For instance, we might read this kind of a statement: Because such-and-such is true about you (the indicative), you should put off this kind of behavior (the negative imperative) and put on this kind of behavior in its place (the positive imperative). Let me give you an example of this from Colossians 3:

If then you have been raised with Christ [the indicative], seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above [a positive imperative], not on things that are on earth [a negative imperative]. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory [the indicative]. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you [a negative imperative]. . . .Put on then [a positive imperative], as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved [the indicative], compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other [a positive imperative]; as the Lord has forgiven you [the indicative], so you also must forgive [a positive imperative]. (vv. 1—5, 12—13)

Through the use of this indicative/imperative paradigm, I trust that the relationship between who you already are and how he has called you to live has become clearer to you and that it will be a tool you’ll be able to use as you study Scripture in the future.”
-- Elyse Fitzpatrick, "Because He Loves Me", pp. 110-111

Fitzpatrick is right... one can go anywhere in the New Testament and find the imperatives grounded in the indicatives, indicatives that themselves are grounded in the one grand Indicative, Jesus Christ and his life, death, resurrection, and exaltation. In fact, just as redemptive history has a rhythm throughout revelation, this indicative-imperative relationship can be found in the Old Testament in parallel with this rhythmatic metanarrative. Even in the Old Covenant, Israel is to act as the people of God. The Ten Commandments, are grounded in a Person and an event, the I AM and the Exodus (Exodus 20:2), both of which have transformed a people into a nation.

There is nowhere we can go in the canon (yes, including Proverbs) and not find this relationship (because there is nowhere we can go and not find Christ). It is our fallen penchant to “just do it” that has emphasized the imperatives to the exclusion of the indicatives. Our tendency is the same as Israel’s... forget the indicatives and just do the imperatives. The result is “lips that move” with “hearts that are far from God”. If we are to act like God’s people, we must keep who we are in Christ and what he has done for us on our behalf front and center of our thoughts and affections (Colossians 3:1ff).

If you want to understand the indicative and imperative in an easy to read format, I highly recommend "Because He Loves Me".