What God has joined together: indicatives and imperatives

March 10, 2014

D. A. Carson’s concern that conservative evangelicals may displace the gospel without disowning it, as stated in his book The Cross and Christian Ministry, is particularly applicable to expository preaching.

If a preacher exposits, verse-by-verse, books of the Bible focusing on moral, ethical, behavioral and attitudinal change, without mediating the meaning and application of the text through Jesus, he teaches a dangerous lesson — even if he slaps a gospel presentation on the end. His message is that, while the gospel is necessary as the entry point, it is not at the center of daily Christian living.

Such moralistic preaching communicates that after believers walk through the gospel door, their focus should be keeping God’s rules, learning timeless principles, and noting which biblical characters to emulate and which to spurn. None of these concerns are the center of the biblical message.

Graeme Goldsworthy suggests in his book Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, that the reason this approach to preaching is prevalent and popular is because “we are all legalists at heart.”

No truths of Scripture are to be understood in isolation. It is possible to preach only true assertions from the Scripture and yet be misleading. When ethical and moral imperatives are proclaimed as sufficient, even abstracted from Jesus, the result is a crossless Christianity in which the central message becomes an exhortation to live according to God’s rules.

Hearers with a seared conscience may develop an attitude of self-righteousness, judging themselves as adequately living by God’s standards. Genuine believers with tender consciences may despair because they know they constantly fall short of God’s commands. In other words, preaching bare moral truths — moralisms — can drive people away from Christ. Such sermons are anti-Christian, even if the bare moral and ethical assertions are true.

In Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, Edmund Clowney makes a helpful distinction between what he describes as “truth to the first power” and truth realized in Christ, “truth to the nth power.” The difference between preaching the moral and ethical truths of the Bible and preaching bare moralism is found in whether the meaning of the biblical truth is contextualized by the gospel of the Kingdom. When preachers simply assume the gospel while preaching the imperatives of Christian living, the result is ever-increasing self-righteousness or despair in the hearers.

Jesus and his apostles confronted liberal Sadducees and conservative, legalistic Pharisees who had the same problem, albeit stemming from opposing directions. Both were pursuing religious justification and satisfaction centered on a moralistic grid rather than Christ.

In his 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen warned, “Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity — liberalism is altogether in the imperative (what you do) mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative (what God has done); liberalism appeals to a man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.”

Machen’s critique is true of many today who gladly sign theologically conservative doctrinal statements and intellectually affirm the inerrancy of the Bible. Moralistic preaching abandons a central focus on the gospel and is unfaithful, whether the message affirms liberal or conservative morality.

Some have wrongly responded to the problem of moralistic preaching by asserting that preaching should focus altogether on the gospel indicative. One pastor told me, “We must preach the gospel indicative to transform lives and not the imperatives.” I have also heard some pastors who regard accusations of antinomianism against their preaching as confirmation of their fidelity to the gospel, and reject the idea that biblical imperatives are given to encourage sanctified living.

The proper relationship between the gospel indicative and imperative is not to pit one against the other. Rather, it is to understand that their relationship is irreversible. The imperative rests on the foundational indicative and is consequential.

In his book By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, Richard Gaffin explains, “If it needs saying, Paul’s gospel, as gospel, stands or falls with the irreversibility …. But this irreversible relationship is an inseparable relationship. Paul, we may also generalize, never writes in the indicative without having the imperative in view, at least implicitly.” Faithful proclamation of the gospel indicative includes proclamation of the consequential imperatives. In Paul: An Outline of His Theology, Herman Ridderbos rightly asserted, “Indicative and imperative are both the object of faith, on the one hand in its receptivity, on the other in its activity. For this reason the connection between the two is so close and indissoluble.”

Gaffin also warns in the same volume, however, of the consequences of sermons that ignore either the indicative or imperative. “On balance, the imperative without the indicative leads into a soteriological legalism, to using the imperative either to achieve or secure one’s salvation; it makes Paul a moralist,” Gaffin wrote. “On the other hand, the indicative without the imperative tends to an antinomianism; it leaves us with Paul the mystic.”

We must reject simplistic abstract moralizing of the biblical text, but we must also approach the text knowing that faithfully preaching the gospel indicative requires proclamation of the consequential ethical imperatives.

The ethical imperatives of Scripture presented as a way of salvation are a corruption of the biblical witness. But, the person who has trusted in the gospel of Jesus Christ for salvation necessarily looks to biblical imperatives as the gracious guidance of their Savior and King.

Jesus did not simply come to usher in the salvation of isolated individuals, but to establish his Messianic Kingdom. In his person, the Kingdom of God was “already” at hand and yet it was “not yet” consummated. The redemptive historical reality of the already but not yet of the Kingdom of Christ means that he has already fully accomplished the salvation of his people, but his people in this fallen world have not yet completely learned how to conduct their lives “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14).

The gospel indicative makes genuine obedience to the ethical imperatives possible and ultimately inevitable (Rom. 8:29, Eph. 2:10). The one who is “in Christ” has been delivered from the vain attempt to obey the imperatives as a means of justification and now hears them as the guidance and direction of a perfectly loving Father (Gal. 4:6).

Delivered from the courtroom of God’s justice, the one who is “in Christ” now is adopted and takes his place in the household of God (Rom. 8:15, Gal. 4:5, Eph. 1:5, 2:19, 1 Tim. 3:15). For the believer, obedience is now a matter of becoming who you already are in Christ. A pastor who avoids preaching on ethical matters is preaching a truncated gospel.

As an outpost of the Kingdom of Christ, the church proclaims the gospel and demonstrates the reign of Christ through living out the ethics of the gospel of the Kingdom. The submission of the church to the Lordship of Christ is to be a constant reminder that the Kingdom has come and that the Kingdom is coming.

Without Christ-centered eschatology there are no ethics, just special interest groups. The gospel indicative tells us God will sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10) and the consequential imperatives call the church to do so right now. When the cruciform community confesses, “Jesus is Lord,” it makes its most vital theological, political and ethical statement and creates a context in which, the gospel that reveals “the righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:17) becomes intelligible.

David E. Prince

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24