Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Misunderstood Imperatives

One of the great problems of Biblical interpretation (and theology) involves the precise nature of Biblical commands, specifically noting the difference between Gospel commands such as “repent, believe, trust, etc.” and commands of the moral Law, such as “Thou shalt have no other Gods” or “Honor your father and mother.”

Whether to recognize this distinction (or not) was one of the major points of contention between Erasmus and Luther when they debated our ability (or inability) to contribute to our own conversion. In his Diatribe, Erasmus argued that God would not give a command that we did not have the wherewithal to accomplish. So, if God commanded us to “Believe”, then we must certainly have within us at least some small ability to get the job done. Luther of course disagreed, setting forth his argument with great passion and force in the “Bondage of the Will.”

I recently ran across Prof. John Schaller’s essay “God’s Will and Command” (1915). In this essay, Schaller explores in some detail the nature of the Gospel imperative and how it differs from the commands of God’s moral law. Stated briefly, Schaller argues that we must think of these commands given under grace as having within them the enabling power of God’s will. They can indeed produce what they command, without our assistance. Thus the command to “Repent” is like the command Jesus spoke to Lazarus, “Lazarus, come forth.” Although Lazarus did indeed obey the command (dead as he was), no one would claim that Lazarus had within him the ability to do so. The power to obey came from Jesus. In other words, God willed him to will what he willed. Bottom line - Lazarus could take no credit for his obedience, just as we can take none for our faith.

What I found most helpful in Schaller’s essay was his use of the simul - how the old me will continually react badly to Gospel imperatives as though they were Law, even though the new me knows better. This explains why I so often have a legalistic reaction to such commands.

"Man by nature stands under the Law, as Paul states it in Gal. 4:3 in so many words…. He hears God's will and command that he should repent, be converted, and believe in Christ. All this he presumes to understand, because what is said appears as imperatives. But not only does the true thought-content of God's commands remain incomprehensible to him, but he also does not notice that here is an imperative which in its nature is entirely unfamiliar to him. Therefore the imperative form evokes from him only wrong notions and thoughts. He regards these commands as new demands made upon him, of the kind that have always plagued and made him unhappy. And because he seems to have the freedom of choice, he sets himself against these demands and formulates with more or less clarity the reason for his refusal to obey.


What, however, is true of the nature and character of the unregenerate, that also still clings to the regenerate, because he carries the old nature with him alongside the new man. While his ears and eyes have been opened so that he sees the wonders of grace and understands the Word of the cross for his salvation, and he also rests his faith on this Word, he nevertheless has learned all this as a new language, which he appropriates completely only gradually; and his thoughts move about in this new environment or sphere of understanding with more or less helplessness.


In every Christian there remains a rather large remnant of legalistic thinking. Because this new way of thinking has not yet taken complete hold of the Christian's flesh and blood, it will happen that in his thinking he will, without being aware of it, enter upon and follow legalistic paths, which should long ago have been done away with, until it dawns upon him with consternation that he has gone astray. So it becomes understandable to us why not only in the Reformed Church, but also among Lutherans much legalistic thinking and application of God's Word has from time to time come to light. Here again the misunderstood imperatives are seen in action. Instead of understanding them as addressed to the new man, who has been freed from the Law, one falls back into the way of thinking of the old man and converts the evangelical, creative commands of God into moral precepts, the fulfilling of which God's righteousness requires."

- John Schaller, God’s Will and Command (1915)

Schaller’s essay made me want to reread the New Testament to find all those misunderstood imperatives - those that may indeed carry with them the creative will and enabling power of God - addressed to the new me under grace, not the old me under law. In addition to repent and believe, perhaps the Gospel imperatives include more than even Schaller dared consider - like seek, come, walk, avoid, give, rejoice, pray, go, love, etc.

At the same time, I wonder how we are to preach these imperatives without conveying the spirit of the Law, burdening people with just so much more to do - along with the accusation, guilt and curse that comes with the failure to do it. It seems to me that we must be very careful here, because my old me is still very active and seems to pick up on all such talk as just additional demands, impossible to carry out.

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