Pauline Parenesis

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.
Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Emeritus
Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia

In March 2015, the Rev. Dr. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Emeritus at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, delivered the annual Kistemaker Lectures at the Orlando campus of Reformed Theological Seminary. The topic of his four lectures was “Life-Giving Spirit: The Exaltation of Christ and Salvation in the Theology of Paul.” Gaffin’s presentation was an opportunity for the campus to hear one of the finest biblical theologians of our day speak in summary fashion on what has been a life-long professional focus: the exaltation of Jesus Christ in the theology of Paul. One excerpt appeared in the previous issue of Reformed Faith & Practice and we are pleased to present a second selection here.

We come now to considering the parenesis or commands, the hortatory element in the theology of Paul. As a point of departure a particularly instructive place to begin is Colossians 3:1-4: “If therefore you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, our life, appears, then you will also appear with him in glory.”

I want to highlight two basic dimensions in this passage. On the one hand, the resurrection of believers is referred to here as an already accomplished fact: “you have been raised with Christ.” The thought here is not merely that believers have been raised representatively when Christ was raised (although that is certainly true; in his resurrection he was their representative). In view as well, and primarily, is an experiential or existential reality. As Paul goes on to say, in their union with Christ believers have already died and their life, their very life, the life they presently possess, is “hidden with Christ in God.”

Secondly, interwoven with these statements, as well, are two parallel commands, “Seek the things above” and “Set your mind on things above.” Here “the things above” (if you have a Greek text in front of you, it’s the adverb ἄνω, translated “above” and made substantive and definite with the neuter plural article – “the things that are above”) surely refers to the things that pertain to the present life of Christ as resurrected and ascended, exalted. That is clear from the relative clause at the end of verse 1 where we are told the “above” is specifically “where is Christ is sitting at the right hand of God.” In other words, resurrection- or ascension-life is now a matter of aspiration, something that in some sense is still to be attained.

It should not be missed, then, that this “above” is not timeless in the sense of being beyond time or having its validity apart from history. The above and below that Paul has in view has nothing to do with pagan metaphysics. Rather, what we have here, we may say, is a redemptive-historical “above.” We can dub it that because in view here in verse 1 is heaven as the place it now is because for now, until his return, Christ, resurrected and ascended, is present there. That is where he is bodily; bodily he is not here but there.

So, I want to highlight, in these verses resurrection-life is brought into view as both a gift and a goal, as both a possession and a calling, a task. The controlling thought here might be paraphrased provisionally in the paradoxically-sounding directive, “seek after” or “set your mind on what you have.”

This teaching is capable of being stated in different ways, but it is instructive to note the way it shapes the syntax of verse 1. In its composition it consists of a conditional clause and a main clause containing a consequence. In the conditional clause (the protasis) – “if you have been raised with Christ” – the verb is in the indicative mood; in the main clause (the apodasis) – “seek the things above” – the verb is an imperative. In a manner of speaking, then, Paul is saying: if the indicative, then the imperative. Or, to put it more concretely, if you have resurrection-life, then seek resurrection-life. Assuming from the context (immediate and broader) that the condition is not purely hypothetical, but is realized, we could render it (as the NIV does): “since then you have been raised with Christ” or because you have resurrection life, seek resurrection life. Or, transposing that grammatical structure: seek after what you have, because you have it.

In the study of Paul in the modern period, this pattern of teaching has been the object of a fair amount of discussion and is often dubbed the problem of indicative and imperative in Paul. I prefer to refer to it as the indicative and imperative pattern, or phenomenon, in Paul. Here it will be useful to go on and note other passages where we find this pattern expressed in different ways.

Galatians 5:25: “If we live in the Spirit, let us walk in the Spirit” – virtually equivalent to saying: if we live in the Spirit, let us live in the Spirit.

Galatians 5:1: “Christ has set us free for freedom; stand firm and do not be burdened again with a yolk of slavery” – equivalent in its elemental thrust to: you are free, therefore be free.

Ephesians 5:8: “Now you are light in the Lord, walk as children of light.”

1 Corinthians 5:7: “Get rid of the old leaven that you may become a new batch of dough,” in other words, that you might become unleavened. So, that is: become unleavened even as you are unleavened. As will become clear, this, a corporate command to the church, also has individual implications for every believer.

We may also note the way in which indicative and imperative are linked by correlating different passages. In Galatians 3:27 there is the indicative: “you have put on Christ”; in Romans 13:14, the imperative, addressed to the church: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 6:3, the indicative: “you have died to sin”; later in verse 12, the imperative: “do not let sin reign in your mortal body.”

Such statements taken together have prompted the observation that Paul’s exhortations to the church – his ethics, a basic aspect of his doctrine of the Christian life – can be summed up by the epigram: “become what you are.” Putting it that way is helpful in its pointedness. However, it also carries the decidedly unhelpful liability of suggesting a form of personal autonomy or self-assertion, and in fact equivalent expressions in this sense have been referenced within Hellenistic philosophy, like Stoicism. So, then, it is important always to take this epigram and read it, at least implicitly, with an all-encompassing Christological gloss: become in Christ what you are in Christ.

The Relationship between Indicative and Imperative

If we now ask about the relationship between indicative and imperative, we pose a question that takes us to the heart of how Paul views the Christian life as whole. Without being able to develop it here, it shows us as well how thoroughly a committed covenantal theologian Paul is. For Paul the covenant bond between God and his people has now been given, incipiently, its final, eschatological form in Spirit-worked union, in the union or fellowship bond that now exists between the exalted Christ and believers. Union with Christ is the climatic realization of the covenant reality that God has established with his people, captured with the words, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

Seen in terms of God’s activity, this relationship or bond, is unilateral, sovereignly monergistic from beginning to end—in its origin, its maintenance and its consummation. At the same time, as it engages believers, it is fully bilateral in its realization and its resolution. Negatively, to misconstrue the relationship between indicative and imperative strikes at the core of his teaching on the Christian life, on sanctification, on life in the Spirit.

In addressing that relational question here, I do so based on a couple of assumptions. First, by themselves the terms indicative and imperative are abstract and undefined, so it is worth reminding ourselves briefly here what they refer to concretely. The indicative is salvation accomplished once for all in Christ in his death, resurrection and ascension, and received in being united to him by faith—prominently justification and the definitive aspect of sanctification, or, seen negatively, being freed once for all from both the guilt and the controlling power of sin. The imperative, in turn, is the will or the law of God, with the Ten Commandments at its core.

That the latter is the case, though sometimes disputed, can be seen from 1 Corinthians 7:19, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.” (ESV) Here there is a clear contrast between the old covenant and new covenant orders, between, on the one hand, what did apply under the old covenant, focused in circumcision, but is no longer applicable, in distinction, on the other hand, from what does apply under the new covenant. Specifically, what applies now is keeping the commandments of God; these commandments continue in force for believers under the new covenant.

This conclusion is reinforced by two parallel statements elsewhere in Paul – statements where we also find the same contrast between the old and new covenant situations expressed by saying that the circumcision-uncircumcision distinction no longer counts for anything. In Galatians 5:6 what does count, in contrast, is “faith working by love” and in Galatians 6:15, “new creation.”

This interconnected triad, then, characterizes the new covenant in distinction from the old: “new creation,” “faith working through love,” and “keeping the commandments of God.” The new creation, inaugurated in Christ and for those united to him, is to be marked by faith working through love, as that consists in keeping the commandments of God. In the light of Romans 7:12 (“The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good”) and particularly Romans 13:8-10, where in addressing the church Paul makes explicit references to the 6th through 8th and 10th commandments, as well as to the 5th commandment in Ephesians 6:2, “the commandments of God” are best understood as the Decalogue centered in the love command.

Unpersuasive in my judgment are arguments that seek to show that the reference in 1 Corinthians 7:19 does not refer to any of the Ten Commandments directly, but only insofar as they are found among the imperatives present explicitly in either the teaching of Jesus or Paul or both.

So, we may note in passing, to consider the relationship between indicative and imperative in Paul is, in other terms, to consider a key aspect of how he sees the relationship in the life of the believer between law and gospel, or better—for, as we will see presently, the sequence is crucial—gospel and law. For believers, the antithesis between law and gospel no longer exists in its most fundamental sense or level. That has been done away with in their justification so that in the theology of Paul, for believers the principal relationship between law and gospel is a positive one; or to put it in a Puritan manner, the two sweetly comply.

The second assumption we make here is with an eye to distancing ourselves from views that they have emerged primarily within the historical-critical treatment of Paul but are unable to address here in detail: Indicative and imperative belong together and function in a positive, non-polar, non-dialectical relationship. By that we mean that the presence of both indicative and imperative in Paul does not involve a tension or amount to a contradiction, whether outright or apparent, as if Paul could not make up his mind or was uncertain about their relationship. In that regard the indicative does not really amount to a disguised imperative, or the imperative to a hidden indicative.

So, then, with these two assumptions kept in view, two important points, mutually related, are to be made about the indicative-imperative relationship. First, this relationship is irreversible. The indicative has priority in the sense that it is the foundation of the imperative; the indicative grounds the imperative, not the reverse. The imperative, in turn, is the fruit or the consequence of the indicative. If it needs saying, Paul’s gospel, as the good news of God’s free grace to sinners and the salvation that gospel ministers, stands or falls with this irreversibility. To put it negatively, it is not as if the indicative is constituted by (responding to) the imperative or expresses only a possibility that is first actualized by the imperative (the view, for instance, of Bultmann, still influential in various forms).

Rather, the indicative is such that it provides the impulse or dynamic, the incentive toward fulfilling the imperative. Paul never writes to the church in the imperative without first writing at least implicitly in the indicative. For he recognizes, perhaps better than many subsequent preachers of his imperatives, that it does no good simply to exhort the church. The church can never be exhorted effectively apart from being reminded who Christ is and who they are and what they have in him. Where that reminder is lacking, the imperative inevitably becomes an oppressive burden on the congregation.

At the same time, secondly, this irreversible relationship is also an inseparable relationship. Paul, we may also generalize, never writes in the indicative without having the imperative in view, at least implicitly

On balance, we may put it this way: the imperative without the indicative leads inevitably into some form of soteriological legalism, to using our compliance with the imperative to achieve our justification or self-secure our salvation, in whole or in part; it leaves us with Paul the moralist. This is the point that has to be made against variants of Liberal “Christianity,” which as Machen reminded us in his classic volume, is not really Biblical Christianity at all. It denies the gospel as does every form of moralism.

On the other hand, the indicative without the imperative tends to antinomianism; it leaves us with Paul the mystic. This is the danger that evangelical Christianity, Christianity that has its roots in the Reformation, is perhaps more exposed to and needs to continually distance itself from.

The point to be grasped here is this: The indicative does not describe a reality, a state of affairs for the believer, that exists by itself without the imperative. In other words, the indicative does not bring into view a situation where (a heart for) the imperative, where being disposed to obey and respond positively to the imperative, is not yet present but follows as a subsequent and presumably detachable addition. Rather, if we are true to Paul, we must appreciate that indicative and imperative are given together, and obedience in response to the imperative is the consequence and attestation apart from which the indicative does not exist. Such obedience is indispensable as “the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith” (the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith, 16.2, in describing the good works of believers).

This does not in any respect confuse indicative and imperative but is to insist, as the apostle does, that they are inseparable. We may say, then: there is no resting in the indicative that is not also restless for the imperative—at least, as we have said, incipiently, in its basic disposition. The hortatory element that permeates Paul’s writings is a clear indication that the life of new obedience does not result automatically in those united to Christ and justified in him. It happens surely, necessarily, but not as it were automatically, not apart from our engagement. In this regard, then, we might say that the imperative has a critical or discriminating function. Where by faith the indicative of salvation in Christ is in fact present, where resting in Christ and his work is a reality, there, too, a concern for the imperative must and will be a reality that comes to expression – however minimally, no doubt imperfectly, inadequately. But that concern must be there.

In discussing the indicative-imperative relationship in his book on Paul’s theology, Herman Ridderbos has a helpful way of making the distinction at issue here. He puts it this way, striking the requisite balance: For Paul the imperative, no less than the indicative, is the concern of faith. It is not as if faith is concerned only with the indicative and then involvement with the imperative somehow goes beyond faith. The imperative, no less than the indicative, is the concern of faith. Both indicative and the imperative are the object of faith, as faith in Christ, and they are that together and inseparably. On the one hand, faith in its receptivity answers to the indicative; on the other hand, faith in its activity corresponds to the imperative.[1]

Note that I just said that, related to the indicative, faith is receptive – not, as it is sometimes put, passive. Passivity is not a particularly useful category here. The Westminster Confession of Faith in its chapter on “Saving Faith” is helpful on this issue and the balance to be maintained: True to Paul, faith in its “principal acts” is “accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life” (14.2); this is the receptivity of faith, responding to the indicative. Correspondingly, what immediately precedes in this subsection is helpful in detailing something of the activity of faith, as it responds to the imperative, in distinction from its receptivity.[2]

Perhaps Paul’s deepest perspective on the indicative-imperative relationship is found in Philippians 2:12-13: “Therefore my dear friends, as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but now much more in my absence, continue to work out you salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Here the imperative comes first, sweeping in its scope: You, that is, the church, are to continue working out your salvation with fear and trembling. (This “fear and trembling”, we should note in passing, is not a matter of anxious or desperate uncertainty, but rather points to fully engaged devotion, reverence, and total involvement.) Equally sweeping is the indicative that follows: “God is at work in you both to will and to work what pleases him.”

What is striking here is the way in which Paul brings imperative and indicative together. We can get at that by noting what Paul does not say. He does not say that God’s working parallels our working in tandem, in a non-intersecting fashion. Nor, related to that, does he say that God’s working supplements ours, or that ours somehow supplements God’s. Paul is worlds away from saying “God helps them who help themselves.”

Nor is God’s working in view compensatory. There is no suggestion here of a tension, as if God is at work in spite of us or to compensate for defects in our working. Now to be sure, that is certainly true on other grounds. God does that in view of all that is undeniably imperfect, all that is flawed about our working, but that is not Paul’s point here. Rather he draws a positive connection. He says we are working just because (γάρ) God is working.

In view here is what with care but fairly may be called a “synergy.” I choose that word advisedly because of the verbs that Paul himself uses. They are verbs that refer to “working”; they accent working, with the same verb used in verse 13 for both God’s working and ours. But with that noted, this is not the synergy of a divine-human “partnership” (a widespread misconception of what a covenant is). It is not a cooperative enterprise where God does his part, we do our part. It is not a 50-50 undertaking, nor is it even, alluding to a soap commercial of a bygone era (which very few readers will likely recall!), 99.44% purely God’s activity and the remaining barest minimal fraction, ours.

Rather what is involved here is, as it can be put, the “mysterious math” of God’s covenant, of that relationship between creator and image-bearing creature, of that fellowship bond, forfeited in Adam in the fall and restored in Christ, whereby 100% plus 100% equals 100%.. Ongoing sanctification, fully from beginning to end, is 100% the work of God and just by virtue of the nature of that working is to engage the full, 100% activity of the believer – again, as noted earlier, in an entirely non-dialectical and non-polar way.

We should not miss the connection to be drawn between what Paul says here in chapter 2 with the promise, the confident categorical assurance that he gives at the outset of this letter to the Philippians. In 1:6 he assures the church, God has “begun a good work in you,” and that good work, Paul says further, “he will bring to completion” at Christ’s return. Philippians 2:12–13 indicate the basic structure by which that good work begun is brought to completion.

Indicative-Imperative and Eschatology

It will be instructive at this point to broaden our perspective by taking note of how the indicative-imperative relationship integrates into the larger present-future, already/not yet eschatological structure basic to Paul’s thinking, in particular as that structure involves the overlap between this present pre-eschatological age and the coming eschatological age – an overlap, as it exists between the resurrection and the return of Christ, that shapes Paul’s outlook on the salvation accomplished and applied in Christ. As noted earlier in these lectures, in light of this overlap and by virtue of their union with Christ in his death and resurrection – their union with Christ as now resurrected – believers both have already been raised from the dead and are yet to be raised.

The basic anthropological distinction Paul that makes in 2 Corinthians 4:16 between “the outer man” and “the inner man” (or self) helps to clarify the resurrection situation of believers: In their outer, bodily existence, they are not yet raised; inwardly, at the core of their being (most often elsewhere in Paul, the “heart”), they have already been raised. Believers are already resurrected in bodies not yet resurrected. Or in terms of key expressions in the exhortation found in Romans 6:12–13, believers are “alive from the dead” … “in the mortal body.”

Using the distinction captured by these expressions as a grid for viewing the indicative and imperative pattern, this overall structure of the Christian life emerges: “Alive from the dead” pinpoints the present indicative of eschatological salvation, salvation as already possessed in Christ, and specifies the basic dynamic for obeying the imperative. This is the first thing the congregation needs to know and be continually reminded about itself: by faith they are a people already raised with Christ, filled by the Spirit with his resurrection life. On the other hand, “the mortal body” points to the still future indicative of salvation, salvation as not yet revealed and possessed in Christ, and the need for the imperative as well as its scope, the necessity for the congregation to be exhorted in the full range of its calling.

I close with these observations. A passage that I came across a number of years ago was so helpful to me at the time. It is found toward the close of G.C. Berkouwer’s book, Faith and Sanctification. In the biblical sense, he writes, “the path of good works runs not from man to God, says Paul, but from God to man.”[3] In other words, we misunderstand good works if we see them as the effort on our part to close the distance between God and ourselves, to gain his favor and earn his forgiveness. Our perspective on sanctification and good works needs to be less anthropological, more theological. Good works according to Paul, are ultimately not ours but God’s. In the end they are his work begun and continuing in us. Sanctification is a matter of God being at work in us both to will and to do what pleases him. That is why faith that rests in God the Savior is a faith that is restless to do his will. As Luther puts it in the Preface to his Lectures on Romans, “faith is a busy little thing.” Or as Paul says, a faith that rests and trusts in Christ is a faith that is “working through love” (Galatians 5:6), and we may add, faithful to Paul, every other fruit produced by the Spirit’s resurrection power.

In 1 Corinthians 4:7 Paul asks some searching rhetorical questions to Christians: “Who makes you different from others? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you did not?” These are questions that every one of us does well to put to ourselves every day of our lives. For these are questions that have the same answer for sanctification as they do for justification, for our good works as well as our faith. Both are God’s gift, his work in us. Neither good works anymore than faith provides any ground for boasting.

The deepest motive for our sanctification, for holy living, for obedience, for good works—for our response to the imperatives of Scripture—is not found in our psychology. That motive is not our gratitude or how we feel about Jesus; nor is it even our faith ultimately. All of these are surely involved and are not to be depreciated. But the ultimate consideration, about which Paul is so confident, is the good work, the resurrection good work that God has begun and is maintaining in his people, a work that he is sure to bring to completion at Christ’s return.

  1. Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology. Trans. by J. R. DeWitt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 256; see the discussion as a whole of the indicative imperative relationship (pp. 253-58). It has substantially influenced my own remarks here.
  2. “By this faith, a Christian … acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof [“the Word”] containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come.”
  3. Trans. J. Vriend; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952, p. 191. This point is unmistakable in Ephesians 2:10, for instance.