35. Prison Epistles: Indicative

Course: New Testament Survey - Acts to Revelation

Lecture: Prison Epistles: Indicative


One other thing that we have in Colossians is the indicative and the imperative, and this is as good a place as any to deal with this aspect of this very strong Pauline passage. There are matched in Paul statements that are indicative (a declarative statement) and imperative (commands).

• In 3:1, we have “If then you have been raised with Christ, [that’s an indicative; now you have the imperative] seek the things therefore that are above.”

• In 3:3, “You have died; your life is hid with Christ” [indicative], and in 3:2, “Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are below” and then, 3:5, “Put to death what is earthly in you” [imperatives].

• In 3:9a, you have the imperative, “Do not lie to one another”, and then you have the indicative following it in this instance, “…seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and put on the new nature.”

When you get to Romans, you have a number of those indicative / imperatives side by side again.

• In Romans 6:11, you have the statement, “So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” [indicative]. You also have an indicative in v. 14, “For sin will have no dominion, since you are not under the law but under grace.” In between, you have the imperative (vv. 12-13), “Let not sin reign in your mortal bodies to make you obey your passions. Do not yield yourselves to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness.”

• In 6:17-18, “Thanks be to God that you who were once slaves to sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin you have become slaves of righteousness” [indicative]. But then he goes on in v. 19, “But just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater iniquity, so now, yield your members to righteousness for sanctification” [imperative].

• 8:12-13, “So then, brethren, we are debtors not to the flesh, who live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh you will die.” Alright, but in vv. 9 and 11 he had said that you are not in the flesh, but in the spirit; and in v. 12, “Therefore you are not debtors to the flesh who live according to the flesh.”

But that raises the question of how one can possibly live in the flesh if they are not in the flesh. If I died to sin, why tell me not to sin? Why would a person go to a cemetery and give a command to a person who’s dead? If you died to sin, why are you commanded not to sin?

1 Corinthians 5:7, the indicative comes in the latter part of the verse, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.” If I really am unleavened, how can I get rid of old leaven? And we’ll look at one more, Galatians 5:25, “If we live by the Spirit, let us walk by the Spirit.” If we live by the Spirit, why tell me to walk by the Spirit? If the statement is true, why tell me to walk by the Spirit? What you have here is the classic problem of the indicative/imperative – it’s a very important aspect of Pauline theology. You have statements such as “You’ve been buried with Christ” or “you’ve died to sin”; and then you have the imperative, “therefore do not sin.” But if you died to sin, how can you sin? Why the imperative, if the indicative is true? Now there’s something important to remember, and that is that one is never given the imperative in order to bring about the indicative. The indicative is a fact; the imperative is based on the indicative. The indicative is never based on the imperative. It’s never, “Do not sin in order that you will die to sin.” But instead, “You have died to sin [the statement], therefore do not sin.” The imperative is always based on the indicative.

How do you make any sense out of this? Why tell somebody not to sin if he’s died to sin? Why tell somebody “You’re not in the flesh, you’re in the spirit,” and then say, “… therefore, don’t yield to the flesh”? If you’re in the Spirit and not in the flesh anymore, how can you yield to the flesh? It raises the question of why the imperative, if the indicative is true. Let me emphasize one more time: the indicative is not based on the imperative; the ethical command is not the basis of the indicative. It’s the reverse: the statement, “You have died to sin,” is the basis for “therefore, do not sin.” It’s not the other way around. It’s not, “Do not sin in order that you die to sin.” “You’ve died to sin,” -- that’s a statement; it’s indicative. “Therefore, do not sin,” the imperative, follows. How do you make sense of that?

It’s not just once that he says this. Time and time again, he says that you’ve died to sin; therefore do not sin. You’re not in the flesh but in the Spirit, therefore do not walk in the flesh. If he said, “You’ve been saved or forgiven for your fleshly deeds, therefore do not do them any longer”, that’s not the same as saying, “You’ve died to the flesh, therefore do not do them any longer.” Have you died to sin or not? Supposing he had said something like “Ultimately, you will have died to sin when Jesus comes. Therefore don’t sin.” The ethical imperative, “Do not sin” is based on some indicative fact, “You have died to sin”. But when I read the imperative, it gives me the impression that the indicative is not fully established –not “you’ve died to sin”, but “you’ve kind of died to sin, therefore do not sin.” Is that the way we should read it? You don’t like that? I don’t like it either, but I’m trying to make logical sense of what the text says. If you say that you’re a Christian and therefore you don’t associate with sin any longer, I think most people would understand that. But if you use the words that Paul used, “You’ve died to sin, therefore do not sin any longer”, that’s a little stronger – a lot stronger.

Let me give a suggestion. When we talk about Bob Stein, there are two Bob Steins – the old Bob Stein who became old at conversion is one (put in your own name here). That old Bob Stein is described as being an “Adam” – as being in the flesh. Now the Bob Stein that begins from conversion and the next major event, the resurrection, is the new Bob Stein. He’s described as being “in Christ”; he’s not in the flesh; he’s in the Spirit. When the Bible talks about the new Bob Stein, it refers to him in these passages (the indicative) not from the perspective of what’s only realized now, between the conversion and the resurrection, but also in what’s not yet realized. When God looks at us, he doesn’t see us as schizophrenic people, and say that this is the present Bob Stein and at the resurrection it’s the other Bob Stein; but Bob Stein in Christ is understood as an individual who has died to sin. He’s died to sin, and he’s in the Spirit. Some of that has been realized. Already now we have the first fruits of the Spirit. You’ve been raised in newness of life. They’re still awaiting the resurrection – the great hope -- the resurrection of the body to be clothed upon.

I don’t know how many imperatives we’re going to have on the other side of the resurrection, but there are a lot of them on this side. And all these imperatives are addressed to the “realized now” new Bob Stein; not the “not yet fully realized” aspect of it. But the indicatives refer to me as a total person. And when God speaks of Bob Stein as having died to sin, he means Bob Stein through the lens of eternity. This Bob Stein is not in the flesh any longer; he’s not associated with Adam. He’s in Christ; he’s in the Spirit. And thus, the indicative describes me as what I am in light of all that I am in Christ. These are not yet realized, but it’s just a matter of time – it’s guaranteed. There are no “ifs” about this; nothing I have to do to arrive at anything; all of this is already accomplished in the mind of God. For us, though, it’s future.

There’s a difference for Christians between hope and people wishing. We Christians don’t wish for the resurrection (that means it might not come); we hope for it – we look forward to it; we long for it; it’s guaranteed to us. And so, in Christ all of these things are true – all of those indicatives. You’ve died to sin – when you believed in Christ in the way God sees us, we’ve died to sin and been raised to newness of life. Sin is no longer in dominion over us. Death has been conquered. All of these are true. In light of the present “in this world” living, the imperatives are directed. But the indicatives see beyond the present, and see us from this total perspective. The imperatives are directed to this now. I don’t think for instance in glory that there’ll be any command not to sin any longer. Those are impossibilities. But here, it’s still a possibility – but the indicative sees beyond that. And God looks at us from the perspective of eternity, and all that we are in Christ. And that’s the way Paul addresses us in his writings. This is the Bob Stein that he’s talking about; this is who the imperatives are addressed to – the one on this side of the resurrection. I think it refers to us from the total of what we are; and that’s why you can have this glorious imagery. That’s why we’re saints – sin no longer has dominion over us. The evil one has lost its power over us ultimately. He can play with us here, but in light of all of this, no.

So I think the indicative and the imperative, for me, that solution came to be helpful because now I can say, “Yes, I can see why Paul makes those indicative statements, because that’s what we are in Christ.” But in light of where we are in the present time, these imperatives have meaning and make sense. It doesn’t deny the indicative. You don’t have to weaken the indicative. The indicatives can be taken very literally. You’ve died to sin, you’ve been raised in newness of life; you live in the Spirit, not in the flesh; sin will have no dominion over you – all of those are true. You don’t have to minimize those. You can rejoice in that. But during this temporary intervening time, the imperatives are directed. In light of all of this, during this intervening time, the imperatives are directed.