Be Careful with Imperatives
Imperatives are good for many things. Luther said the Law is good, but precisely because it is good, it has become poison and death for the bad. The Law does not give life but evaluates it, and we encounter day in and day out its negative evaluation of us. We may not say or see how it is God’s Law which has bruised and even battered us, but His structures intrude on every aspect of our lives, whether we consciously acknowledge them or not. When we run afoul of His protective boundaries, it hurts in one way or another. The commands that give us details of God’s design for human life prescribe its form and challenge us to perform.
Imperatives give verbal form to these prescriptions and challenges. They are designed to place a certain burden on the hearer. First, they provide a mirror with which we can look at ourselves, a measuring stick by which we can appraise how we have been doing in living according to the God-fashioned pattern for life. Sometimes they help us see what the Holy Spirit has actually accomplished with us. But often they remind us of what we may or may not have already noticed: that we have fallen short, missed the mark, offended God, by relying on our own judgment or following our own hankerings rather than listening to God’s plan. We need this diagnosis to live honestly with ourselves.
Sometimes imperatives generate outward conformity to the plan of God for human living, and hypocrisy is the glue which holds society together. Even when it breeds hypocrisy, God’s Law is, “curbing sin by means of the threat and terror of punishment” (Smalcald Articles, III, I, 1), and curbing sin benefits public life and private interactions a great deal. I do not want to be a hypocrite, but I do hope those around me act hypocritically if they have malicious thoughts about me. And there are times when God’s commands help believers make decisions; faith moves them to want to serve God. However, the interference from broadcasters around us in our culture confuses us, and we need good advice. Sometimes this advice comes in the form of condemnation of actions in which we have been engaging. At other times it comes from the positive description of God-pleasing behavior in the dicta or the examples of the Biblical people of God.
But the Law by any other name is still what God demands of us. It makes no difference whether we tell our people “Christians must do …” or “Christians should do …” or “Christians ought to do” or “Christians do” or “will do” good works. The Law by any other name is just as burdensome and as helpful. Its burden falls on us. And negative judgments from God’s plan regarding our intentions or our actions can be as instructive as the positive admonitions of Paul or Moses. As James Nestingen has observed, you can tame the wolf into a valuable guide dog, but you never know when it is going to turn on you.
The Law becomes a comfort dog—though only for a time—for those in our society who have experienced such chaos in their young lives that some semblance of order, which clear imperatives can produce, is truly good news. The comfort they find from imperatives setting things in order turns to a crushing burden when they find His law does not, and certainly not our performance of it, truly comfort and support. Only the person of our God provides ultimate comfort. Preachers must—and this is a burden which imposes pressure—listen carefully and develop sensitivity to how the Law is making an impact on individual hearers.
Given the moral confusion and ethical obscurantism of North American society today, the imperatives take on a more pressing role, contradicting the fake reports of what is permissible and good for human happiness, success, or fulfillment. Sincere Christians who want to serve the Law need more help than was the case earlier among us in determining where God wants to direct and guide us. For trust in Christ the Savior does not automatically clear out the filth of earlier engagements with false senses of right and wrong, of proper and satisfying paths to godly contentment. Reliable moral information is harder and harder to find among us.
We are all engaged in the daily struggle with temptation and our daily failure to fear, love, and trust in God above everything and everyone else. Therefore, if we are honest with ourselves, the Law cannot help but breed dissatisfaction with ourselves, if not outright guilt as such. This dissatisfaction or lack of peace with what we have done or not done is inevitable, no matter how much help we find from the advice we have gleaned from God’s commands. Imperatives are mirrors reflecting life’s dark corners and the murderous impact of our way of life, no matter how much the Holy Spirit is accomplishing through our performance of God’s will. Often at the same time they point up His successes in guiding into the paths of right living in the obedience of faith. We often let the mirror get dirty or fogged-over enough, so it no longer reflects all the blemishes and bruises or the moments in our lives that demonstrate the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Liberating honesty about our sin and His empowerment comes only through the destruction of our sinful identity through Christ’s forgiveness. His death and resurrection provide the only antidote for the plague of our doubt of His Word and denial of His Lordship.
To be sure, some imperatives function as invitations rather than commands. “Eat up!” said to a hungry person does not expect obedience but an eager response to the gift of food set before her. Not grammatical form but meaning in context is what in fact conveys our message. But preachers must be sensitive to the fact that imperatives function as conditionals: “if” is a word that puts the burden on us when followed by a description of what God expects in the lives of His chosen people. “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life”—and woe to those who do not believe. Almost none of our hearers hear the threat implicit in this placing of a condition on the promise, but grammatically it is there. For the tenderest of consciences it can be a reminder of something less than ardent belief, reliance, and confidence in Jesus.
My student Doyle Theimer notes how Jesus’ imperatives are more positive than those laid down by Moses in the Decalogue. They are also more comprehensive than what was said of old. Some are startling, e.g., in the Sermon on the Mount. But they are understood only if taken as Jesus does, with the understanding of the loving Father who stands behinds the imperatives.
Beyond that, there are some imperatives that simply cannot produce results of any real kind. They are the commands to reap from our relationship with God the essential human elements of that relationship. This occurred to me when recently I was admonished to hope in the Lord. I have also admonished people to hope as though they could somehow muster up hope out of the power of my proclamation. Hoping is like trusting or loving. You may be able to feign it for a brief time with a happy face, but inside the smile only makes the desperation come into clearer focus. Trust, love, and hope are often commanded in Scripture, but it is impossible for human creatures to obey the command from within; these vital characteristics of being human are created by another, not manufactured by oneself. No one can muster obedience to these commands. The object of our hope, love, and trust must create these in us.
C. F. W. Walther commented on the preacher’s attempt to build faith in his hearers. It is not accomplished by commands to believe, he noted. His ninth thesis on the distinction of Law and Gospel states, “God’s Word is not rightly divided when faith is demanded in such a way as if a person could give it to himself, or at least contribute something toward it instead of seeking to preach faith into the heart by presenting the promises of the Gospel.” The expressions of love we hear from our Creator throughout Scripture elicit trust. Life-giving trust in our God comes from the promise of our Savior and friend Jesus Christ alone to forgive us and to light up our lives, to be with us and share with us His resurrected life.
Now more than ever, imperatives are needed by people in our God-forsaking society. But God’s imperatives attain power to accomplish what He wants—obedience out of fear, love, and trust of Him above all else--only in the context and on the basis of the gift of righteousness through the forgiveness of sins and restoration of our identity as God’s children wrought by the Crucified and Risen Jesus the Messiah.