Imperative And Indicative; Law And Gospel

James writes to ask,

I am trying to work out the Law/Grace distinction, and am having some trouble understanding the imperative/indicative divide. For example, in Acts 3 Peter is preaching what appears to be the gospel in the Temple, and he preaches it with the words “Repent therefore, and be converted…” (Acts 3:19). He equates conversion with repentance, and repentance is obeying a command. We are called to repent by God. Is he preaching gospel or law here? If it is law, where does he get to the gospel?

Dear James,

This is a good and important question. It is also a difficult question in some respects. It comes down to definitions and intent.
When I first started trying to sort through the distinction between law and gospel, it was in the midst of the struggle with what was then known as the Shepherdite theology, which later became known as the (self-described) Federal Vision. This movement fundamentally confuses the law and the gospel. It is a corruption of the gospel that has been rejected by the Reformed churches. In response, some of us distinguished between indicative and imperative. What we meant was to distinguish between God’s promise of free, unconditional justification in Christ by grace alone, through faith alone and God’s demand, in the covenant of works with Adam, for perfect, personal obedience as the condition to enter into glory or the consequent obligation to obedience that belong to those who have been freely saved sola gratia, sola fide because they have been saved graciously.

To be clear, the distinction between the indicative and imperative moods is still valid. In grammar the indicative is one mood and the imperative is another. It is possible to correlate these moods to different ways of speaking in Scripture. E.g., “Do this and live” is in the imperative mood. “For God so loved the world” is in the indicative mood. These are also different kinds of words in Scripture. Nevertheless, it is also true that the distinction can become blurry in places. E.g., Our Lord says “come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” It is difficult to distinguish the hortatory “come” (Δεῦτε) in Matthew 11:28 from an imperative. We might classify this language as impetrative (from impetrāre, to obtain by request). It is an urgent exhortation such as made in the free offer of the gospel. “Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek 33:11; ESV). Nevertheless, it seems relatively evident that there are “gospel imperatives.” The call to “believe” in “repent and believe” is one of those.

Because of the ambiguities inherent in the distinction I have not spoken much of the imperative and indicative for several years in favor of the older and more well established distinction between works and grace or law and gospel.

As to what to do with “repent and believe,” I am influenced by the Reformed theologian Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) who consistently treated the imperative “to repent” as an expression of the law, not of the Gospel. In contrast, he treated the imperative “to believe” as a gospel imperative. The difference lies in the object of each. Faith and repentance have distinct objects. Faith looks to Christ and to his obedience for us. Repentance, however, considers at our sin, acknowledges it, and turns away from it. This is why Olevianus related repentance to the law, which teaches us the greatness of our sin and misery, and faith to the gospel, which announces free salvation for helpless sinners.

There is a corollary here to law and gospel. Both make promises but they do so on the basis of different conditions to be met. When the condition to be met is obedience, then it seems that we are talking about the law, about performance, about “do this and live.” This is what some older Reformed theologians called an antecedent condition. According to the Reformed understanding, Christ has fulfilled the antecedent condition of obedience (i.e., the covenant of works) for the the elect or for the believer, in the his place, as his substitute. The believer receives the benefit of what Christ has done by grace alone, through faith alone. In Reformed theology faith has frequently been called the condition of the covenant of grace but it is not a condition of the same sort as obedience or “do this and live.” For this reason, Herman Witsius (1636–1708) preferred to call faith the instrument of the covenant of grace rather than a condition. Faith, as Luther said, is an empty hand. It receives what someone else has done for us.

The imperative “believe” refers not to the law but to the gospel. It is a call to receive freely what Christ has done for us. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:8–10, salvation, including faith, is a gift. In this respect, faith has a unique, once-for-all role in salvation that repentance does not have. Repentance does not receive Christ, his obedience, and his grace. Insofar as faith is the sole instrument of salvation it is perfect. Repentance is not the instrument of justification and it is never perfect. The Christian life is a life of repenting or a penitent life. The law continues to demand perfect, personal obedience. We continue to miss that righteous mark. We repent of our sin. We seek to die daily to sin (mortification) and to be made alive with Christ (vivification). To be sure we continue to believe just as justification and salvation are ongoing but believers are those who “have been” justified (Rom 5:1). Sola gratia, sola fide we are “in Christ” and therefore, despite our sin and imperfect repentance “therefore there is no condemnation” (Rom 8:1). We are no longer under works, but under grace because Christ has met the conditions of the covenant of works for us (Rom 11:6). Unlike the rich young man, we are no longer under “do this and live” (Luke 10:28). We live now because Christ has “done” for us.

Contra both antinomians and neonomians we affirm the abiding validity of God’s law and its proper use in the Christian life. The antinomian says that because Christ has satisfied the law as our substitute, we no longer have to obey it. The neonomian says that Christ’s obedience to the law was only the beginning, that we must also obey the law to earn or retain our place with God. Both are anathema. We recognize three uses of God’s law: pedagogical, civil, and normative. The pedagogical teaches us the greatness of our sin and misery (Heidelberg 2 and 3). The civil use (the 2nd table) norms common, civil life. The normative use governs the Christian life. In Heidelberg 114 we confess that even though “the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience,” nevertheless believers resolve to “begin to live not only according to some, but according to all the Commandments of God.” We do not seek to obey in order to earn a place with God nor to retain what we have been given (as the Federal Visionists teach) but out of gratitude, in union with Christ.

Nevertheless, the law never becomes the good news. The law never declares: “it is finished.” Only the gospel does that. The law always demands perfect and personal obedience, conditions which no sinner ever meets in this life. The gospel announces good news, calls us to faith, and promises salvation conditioned upon Christ’s obedience for us. The gospel is in the indicative mood. It is fundamentally an announcement of what Christ has done for us. Are there consequent imperatives? Indeed there are. These are conditions of another sort, which some of our older theologians described as consequent conditions. We fulfill them not in order to be accepted with God but because we have been accepted freely for Christ’s sake.

Here are some resource posts:

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. One of the leaders upon whom I attended in my charismaniac days was an old-fashioned “pentecost” plus Fletcherian Holiness preacher named G W North. One of his doctrines was that the Ten Commandments were commandments under Law, but are promises under Grace. Whilst I don’t remember phrases such as “imperative” and “future indicative” being part of his preaching vocabulary, he did make a lot of the fact that the said Ten Commandments are in the future indicative in the English Bible. Can one quite say that when the Hebrew is considered? I would think at least almost!

    • John,

      He is quite confused. The law has always contained a promise but the realization of the promise is conditioned upon perfect and personal obedience.

      The apostle Paul says that the fifth commandment was the first commandment given with a promise.

      • He’s no longer with us, so I would wonder how confused he still is! Thanks for that bit about the apostle Paul and the fifth commandment – I’d missed that.
        What I’d also missed was that not all ten commandments are in the future indicative, and, therefore, eligible to be classed as promises under his reckoning. The fifth and the beginning of the fourth are in the imperative – and it is the latter fact that really kills his assertions. For if “thou shalt” constituted a promise than the fourth commandment would be the first with a promise and the fifth would be the second such.

  2. Calling the 10C “promises” based on putative futurity is profoundly ignorant. A man doesn’t know WHY biblical-linguistic scholars gave arguably the best translation of Ex.20:1-17 as commands; but with a smattering of Hebrew, and studious avoidance of picking up a grammar text, he will teach many others his “expert” readings. I’m not afraid to explain to an audience that I prefer an alternate translation; but one owes his hearers some rationale for the words on the page.

    Below is a classic, grammatical description from Gesenius (a 19th C text, revised over 100yrs ago in the 20th C, now public domain, and freely available on the internet)

    § 107. Use of the Imperfect

    4. Finally to the sphere of future time belong also those cases in which the (modal) imperfect serves to express actions, events, or states, the occurrence of which is to be represented as willed (or not willed), or as in some way conditional, and consequently only contingent. More particularly such imperfects serve—

    (a) As an expression of will, whether it be a definite intention and arrangement, or a simple desire, viz.:

    (2) To express the definite expectation that something will not happen. The imperfect with לֹא represents a more emphatic form of prohibition than the jussive[1] with ־ אַל (cf. § 109 c), and corresponds to our thou shalt not do it! with the strongest expectation of obedience, while ־ אַל with the jussive is rather a simple warning, do not that! Thus לֹא with the imperfect is especially used in enforcing the divine commands, e.g. לֹא תִגְּנ בׄ thou shalt not steal Ex 20:15; cf. verses 3, 4, 5, 7, 10 ff.
    [1] As stated in § 46 a, a prohibition cannot be expressed by ־ אַל and the imperative.

  3. Helpful Dr, but a puzzle:

    You affirm the abiding validity of God’s law and its proper use in the Christian life. You suggest we do ‘have to obey’ the Law, but do not answer the question: “What result, if any, is envisaged in our obedience? NOT justification, of course, but an honouring of God? a right love of neighbor? Justice? etc. The Apostle’s doctrine, was that just as there was a NEW High Priest, there also was a NEW law. – ‘The law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus’ which life Rom 8:1-4 says will fulfil the intent of what was on stone, from out of the impulse of the new heart of the new covenant. And as to the decalogue informing us as to how this life will look outwardly, surely the Lord gave us a more succinct description of it by His ‘NEW Commandment’ – ie., to love like He did.

    • Before Jesus calls it a New (covenant) commandment, Jn.13:34, he had already summarized the Old (covenant) commandment, with its everlasting moral cornerstone of the Ten Laws, in two great laws, Dt.6:5 and Lev.19:18, which were to LOVE first God, and neighbor; see Mk.12:28-31.

      The Apostle John says twice that the New commandment is really the Old, 1Jn2:7 and 2Jn.1:5. Likewise Paul, Rom.13:8-10 and Gal.5:14 (among other places) shows that love is the fulfillment of the moral law (note his repeated verbal alignment with the ancient moral exhibits).

      The fact is, the moral law is an exposition of LOVE. It unpacks love, and shows us what it looks like. Otherwise, our sinful tendency is to figure that if I’m a Christian, and I’m for it, it must be love! No, apart from the Word of God, we ought to view with suspicion our heart-impulses. Because we are simul iustus et peccator; because we are not in heaven yet.

      The fall defaced and ruined the original, holy natural inclination to righteousness; and made man deaf and disinclined to all the positive precepts God might will for him at some time or other. But it could not eradicate the Lord’s “work of the law,” and the remaining relics are useful for gaining the condemned’s conscience-assent to the righteous judgment of God now and in the end, Rom.2:5-16.

      We don’t have to guess what the repair is made of, or muse on how to define the law “written on the heart,” nor fight about it. It’s the SAME moral dicta that was rehearsed to Israel at Sinai, and before that all the way at the beginning was part of the Adamic constitution.

      Boasting that we can and ought to concentrate on fulfilling ourselves a “new law,” be it succinct or as in-depth as the Sermon on the Mount, is a prescription for a new hypocrisy “that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.” Heaven forfend!

  4. Thanks Bruce and I agree, it’s just that the apostle says the outward law actually worsens our plight, occasioning the arousal of our inner corruption, so a living law within and going out as Christ’s life,. is the answer, not a list.

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