Imperative And Indicative; Law And Gospel

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.

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.


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 betweenindicative 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.

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