Foundations: No.62 Spring 2012

The Relationship Between Paul’s Soteriology and His Ethics

Steven K Mittwede, EQUIP! Team, Ankara, Turkey

Any discussion of biblical ethics must ultimately focus on the character of God and, by extension, on the will of God as revealed in the Bible and the example of God in Jesus Christ. Thus, all normative ethical principles presented in the Bible are rooted in God’s character and are enjoined upon people of faith. [1] Moses’ prayer in Ex 33:13 is revealing: ‘Now therefore, if I have found favour in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favour in your sight.’ He understood that right living is possible only through knowledge of God and his ways, and realised that such knowledge is accessible only through God’s self-revelation. Accordingly, in this essay I will explore the relationship between soteriology and ethics within the framework of God’s self-revelation, particularly as presented in the Pauline corpus.

Arthur Holmes wisely perceives and expounds the distinction between a rule-ethic and an act-ethic, the former having ‘the biblical view of creation in mind and the divine law as its paradigm’, and the latter presupposing ‘no universal and lasting structures to human life’ and ‘no distinguishable areas of unchanging responsibility’ (as in typical postmodern thought). [2] The evangelical Christian clearly would see himself operating within the context of a rule-ethic where there are divinely-revealed ethical absolutes. In other words, there is an ought that is neither self-imposed nor socially-imposed but, rather, that is divinely revealed and imposed. [3]

Some ethicists found their constructs of biblical ethics on a specific attribute of God, or upon a specific set of biblical commands or principles. [4] The problem with some such constructs is that they do not give first place to explaining how a person of faith can possibly live according to the divine standard, that is, holiness and moral perfection. If the bar is so high, how can one possibly hope to clear it?

In light of this, it seems preferable to begin with what Bultmann calls the ‘divine verdict’. [5] In the context from which he writes, the divine verdict can only mean the sovereign, gracious work of God in redemption that draws one into God’s kingdom. As he concludes, ‘all of man’s moral perfection can be of no significance without the decisive verdict of God.’ [6]

In a similar vein, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on the subject of ‘Doing’ writes:

When the Bible calls for action it does not refer a man to his own powers but to Christ Himself. ‘Without me ye can do nothing’ (John 15.5). This sentence is to be taken in its strictest sense. There is really no action without Jesus Christ… This saying of Jesus demonstrates more clearly than any other saying in the Bible that all action is entirely bound up with Jesus Christ… [7]

Accordingly, in the New Testament, and especially in the Pauline epistles, we see that divine grace (through faith) is the basis for justification [8] , and justification the basis for sanctification. [9] It is only because one is in Christ first that he is empowered for living Christianly. [10] Many Christian theologians and ethicists have recognised this relationship and thus frame Pauline ethics in terms of the interplay of the indicative and imperative moods.

A Brief History of Indicative-Imperative Interplay

The foundational Pauline corpus notwithstanding, the recognition of the indicative-imperative interplay (or interchange, as explained below) – although not using those terms – seems to date back to Irenaeus. In Against Heresies, there is evidence that he grasped this interplay insofar as he wrote that heretics and the false doctrines they purvey might be legitimately controverted by following ‘the only true and stedfast Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself. [11] (emphasis added). It seems likely that Irenaeus had 2 Cor 5:21 in mind as he penned those words.

In any case, it might be argued that his reference was singularly referring to justification and redemption, but only the most myopic of readers can fail to appreciate the logical relationship of justification to sanctification. What is in view is empowerment, initially unto juridical freedom from the penalty of sin and, consequently, unto freedom from the power of sin in daily living. Moreover, the Christian life is to be positive and active, not only negative and passive. [12]

Of course, in the medieval pre-Reformation church, a dependence upon good works rather than upon God’s grace for salvation effectively waylaid the possibility of a sound grasp of the indicative-imperative interplay. As stated above, sanctification properly understood must be founded on the gracious, redemptive work of Christ in saving the individual from the law of sin and death – thus removing divine condemnation – and for freedom according to the law of the Spirit of life. [13]

The clarified theology that issued from the Protestant Reformation facilitated a renewed understanding of Christian ethics. For example, John Calvin – in his exposition of Rom 12:1-2 – indicates that he fully comprehended that ‘the imperative of Paul’s thought is based upon the indicative’: [14] ‘…this exhortation teaches us, that until men really apprehend how much they owe to the mercy of God, they will never with a right feeling worship him, nor be effectually stimulated to fear and obey him.’ [15] In other words, only one’s understanding and practical grasp of his position in Christ will yield – nay allow – godly fear and obedience.

Jack Sanders suggests that Bultmann, in his 1924 paper cited above, was the first to draw attention unquestionably to the relationship of imperative to indicative. [16] Therein Bultmann notes that, for Paul, the imperative and indicative belong together, since ‘Paul bases the imperative on the very fact of justification’ (the reality of the Christian’s position in Christ). [17] However, although Bultmann teaches that the indicative-imperative structure ‘is basic to Pauline thought’, [18] he seems to fuse the indicative and imperative such that the indicative is ‘realised or laid hold of in the Christian’s experience by the imperative, that is, man’s daily existential decision to walk in the obedience of God by faith in the Christ-event.’ [19] Other approaches to the indicative-imperative relationship will be laid out in the following section.

Insights Regarding Indicative-Imperative Interplay

As summarised by Michael Parsons, the positions of Pauline scholars on the subject of the indicative-imperative relationship fall into three distinct categories. [20] The fusion of these moods by Bultmann is discussed briefly above, but other scholars – such as Victor Paul Furnish, Paul Ramsey and Bernard Häring – also take this tack. Furnish reaches the conclusion that ‘the indicative and imperative are one in that the former includes the latter without necessarily identifying them and saying that the one is the other.’ [21] Ramsey, on the other hand, construes the indicative and imperative as coinherent in Christ, and sees Christianity as carrying only an obligation to love in an ethical construct seemingly prescient of the situation ethics of Joseph Fletcher. [22] Häring’s approach is somewhat different for, although he seems to make a distinction between the indicative and the imperative, he understands the indicative to become the imperative. [23]

The second category, as presented by C. H. Dodd, understands the indicative-imperative relationship to be one of virtual irrelation. As Parsons summarises, although Dodd recognises that the indicative and imperative are organically related, he effectively severs any causal relationship and sees the relationship as simply sequential: first the indicative (kerygma) then the imperative (didache). [24]

The final, and most demonstrably biblical, category grounds the imperative in the indicative; thus, the two moods are closely related yet distinct. [25] As Doriani aptly points out, for Paul

…the capacity to fulfill one’s duty by acting righteously depends upon God’s prior renewal of character. Paul’s indicative statements of what God has done in believers constitute the foundation for imperative statements of what God requires of them. [26]

Parsons surveys Paul’s use of the imperative based on the indicative, and analyses Rom 12:1-2, Phil 2:12-13, Gal 5:25 and 1 Cor 6:12-20 in order to elucidate this relationship, [27] but as Doriani points out, ‘the indicative-imperative pattern is most striking when the same idea appears as an indicative in one place and as an imperative in another.’ [28] For example, in Rom 6:12 there is an imperative: ‘Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies…’; but later in the same chapter (Rom 6:22) an indicative: ‘But now that you have been set free from sin…’. In some cases, the related indicatives and imperatives are even located in different epistles; for example, ‘For as many of you were baptised into Christ have put on Christ’ (Gal 3:27), and ‘But put on the Lord Jesus Christ…’ (Rom 13:14).

In places the indicative and imperative are juxtaposed in a single verse, as in the so-called locus classicus for this interplay, [29] Gal 5:25: ‘If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.’ Here, Paul placed indicative and imperative side-by-side in a chiasm to emphasise ‘equally the givenness and the responsibility of life and freedom’; ‘In reality, God makes possible the life which he demands.’ [30]

An example of an insightful recognition and analysis of indicative-imperative interplay is Peter O’Brien’s treatment of Phil 2:12-13. He shows that, in spite of what seems to be a paradox, what is in view is an ‘eschatological orientation’ which is ‘the basis for ethical action’. He, too, notes that the imperatives of ‘ethical admonitions’ in Paul’s writings are closely related to, and dependent on, the indicatives, and that the goal of these exhortations is for the believers ‘to become what they already are in Christ.’ [31]

Another thought-provoking approach to Pauline ethics is that of Philip Towner. Although he makes no direct reference to the indicative and imperative, his analysis of word groups in the Pastoral Epistles reaches the same conclusion. He finds that ‘in principle Christian existence is the interplay between correct (apostolic) doctrine, as the basis of faith in Christ, and outward, corresponding behavior’ and that the Christ-event ‘is the source of the observable lifestyle of faith.’ [32]

Although he, too, does not mention the indicative-imperative relationship per se, it is clear that Richard Longenecker also grasps the Pauline understanding of Christian ethics. Longenecker sees the Christian life as

based upon the fact of a new creation in Christ, directed by the ‘law of Christ’ and the ‘mind of Christ’, motivated and conditioned by the ‘love of Christ’, enabled by the ‘Spirit of Christ’, and expressed in a situation of temporal tension between what is already fact and what is yet to be realized. [33] (emphasis added)

We must guard against thinking that there was a clash of the indicative and imperative in Paul’s mind. As Richard Howard points out, ‘Any paradox is in our understanding and not in Paul’s thought.’ [34] We should also see and appreciate that indicative-imperative interplay is central and not peripheral; in fact, it is ‘the very warp and woof of Pauline thought – specifically in his soteriology.’ [35]

A Variation on the Theme – Interchange

Although she mentions the indicative-imperative (‘neatly summed up as the command to “be what you are’’), [36] Morna Hooker explains her approach to Pauline ethics under the rubric of interchange. She unpacks two of the most difficult Pauline statements, Gal 3:13 and 2 Cor 5:21, and in so doing reaches the conclusion that a ‘pattern of exchange is the basis of the Christian life – both as its foundation and as its guiding principle.’ [37]

But the terms interchange and exchange, to what do they refer? Recalling 2 Cor 5:21, Hooker explains that – in the incarnation – ‘Christ became what we are in order that we might become what he is.’ [38] However, she urgently stresses that ‘the interchange of experience is not a straightforward exchange’ because in Christ we, sinful people, become God’s righteousness, and Christ not only becomes sin but also our righteousness. [39] On the basis of being ‘incorporated into Christ’, Christians become rich at the expense of Christ, but as soon as this happens, logically, the riches are restored to Christ insofar as believers are in him. [40]

Hooker goes on to explain that Christ, the second Adam, took on flesh (the form of the first Adam) so that men can be conformed to his image in a new creation. Thus, Christ became what we are so that we might share in what he is – the true imago Dei – and what we were intended to be from the creation. ‘It is because of his obedience and his δικαίωμα, that the δικαίωμα is fulfilled in us.’ [41] As new creatures in Christ, the alienation of men from God is no longer in force. The Adamic existence, with its emphasis on sin and the law, is replaced by life in Christ.

So what are the ethical implications for Christians? Being ‘in Christ’ is about more than just sharing his status before God, namely his vindication as the Righteous One. Christians share his moral righteousness, and are called to be conformed to the image of Christ. [42] In other words, although freed from the demands of the Mosaic law, there definitely is behaviour that is appropriate for those who are in Christ, and Paul refers us to the example of Christ himself. [43]

Thus, the Christian life is more than waiting for ‘pie in the sky’. Christ’s incarnation not only secured that yet-future reality but also provided the example and power for living the life of Christ. The Christian’s lifestyle was definitely in view in the redemption provided by Christ because it is the Church that carries on the ministry of incarnation and takes the message of Christ to a hurting, dying world. As Hooker notes,

For Paul, being in Christ means sharing in the dying as well as the living, in the giving as well as the receiving, in the poverty as well as the riches, in the humiliation as well as the glory. That is why conformity to the gospel affects his whole lifestyle. [44]

This reality demands that Christians reject the health-and-wealth gospel, as well as values such as self-reliance and success, which millions of people can never hope to achieve. [45] The lifestyle – the example of Christ – to which Christians are called is profoundly relevant to our contemporary problems and the problems of every age and place.

Another Twist – The Letter and the Spirit

Stephen Westerholm, in his seminal 1984 paper, suggests that the foundation of Pauline ethics is the letter-spirit antithesis. [46] He notes that, although the letter-spirit antithesis occurs in only three verses in the Pauline corpus, it serves ‘as a handy formula expressing central convictions’. [47]

Following a review of the letter-spirit antithesis in the works of theologians from Origen to Bultmann and Käsemann, Westerholm analyses the pertinent Pauline texts and concludes that what is in view is not two ways of reading the scriptures but, rather, the ways of service enjoined under the old and new dispensations. [48] In other words, to Westerholm, the letter-spirit antithesis has nothing to do with Pauline hermeneutics but, rather, only with man’s obligation to God, and he sees the statement of Rom 7:6 as programmatic. Under the law (gramma), the Jew was compelled to live according to its strictures, but under grace the believer is to follow the guidance of the Spirit (pneuma). [49] However, this understanding should not be construed as in any way antinomian. While the Christian is not obligated to fulfil the demands of the law (in fact, he cannot), he has a higher calling: to be a servant of God (Rom 6:22), a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1). [50] All believers, though possessing the Spirit, still need instruction as to how they are to live as long as they are ‘in the flesh’. [51] Thus, the ethical instruction of the New Testament is necessary and of vital practical importance to the Christian.

The letter-spirit antithesis does not conflict or compete with indicative-imperative interplay or interchange as rival bases for Pauline ethics. Rather, these approaches should be understood to differ in focus and definition rather than in substance and goal. The three models are actually complementary and provide different aspects of Paul’s soteriology, specifically his understanding of sanctification with its roots in justification. In the letter-spirit antithesis, ‘the Spirit is introduced as the mark of Christian ethics’, much as justification is the basis for sanctification in the interplay of the indicative and imperative. In both cases, gracious divine provision is the foundation upon which all truly ethical behaviour is predicated.

Pastoral Implications

The consequences of the soteriological framework expounded above are profound, for at stake is the spiritual health of individual believers and local fellowships of believers. The development of a biblical worldview and consequent on-going transformation is an impossibility if the climate that we develop in our churches is bereft of God’s perspective on salvation. So, in practice, what does this transformation look like, and how do we facilitate it?

Transformation occurs as we increasingly see God, ourselves, others and the world the way that he does, and treat all of those as he does by appropriating the resources that are our possession in Christ; the ‘seeing’ and ‘treating’ constitute imperatives, of course, and the resources that are ours in Christ constitute the indicative necessary for Christian life and ethics, as laid out above. As Lambrecht astutely notes, ‘out of Christ’s merciful action (the indicative) follows the Christians’ task (the imperative) to extol and exalt God.’ [52] So anything that we do in our fellowships which promotes ‘God-like seeing’ will spur personal and corporate transformation and, consequently, exaltation of God. In order to assist our people in laying hold of the riches that are theirs in Christ, [53] there are several steps that we can and should take, with intentionality:

  1. Our preaching and teaching [54] must be front-loaded and super-charged with respect to the ‘indicatives’ of the Christian life. Legalistic forms of Christianity – really non-Christianity – do just the opposite, placing inordinate emphasis on the ‘imperatives’, thereby sending a clear but warped message that human effort rather than Christ-mediated grace constitutes the backbone of sanctification. [55] A corollary of this is that we must also recognise and deal with the widespread, seemingly systemic problem which Paul Tripp calls ‘identity amnesia’. Satan works over-time to deceive and accuse believers, and one of his chief tactics is to cloak the believer’s true identity in Christ with falsehood, such that s/he forgets the key indicative of Christian existence, namely, that s/he is both one with Christ and also a new creature in Christ. [56]
  2. In various church contexts (leadership meetings, home groups, formal teaching times, etc.), exhortation to humility in our dealings with our brothers and sisters must be provided steadily. The indicatives of the Christian life may be used as a club just as much as the imperatives. It is both possible and, sadly, likely, that a believer might adopt a triumphalistic, ‘holier than thou’ attitude when s/he approaches another believer about sin in her/his life. Of course, such flies in the face of clear teaching in Galatians 6:1 (‘Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted’), and denies the on-going need of grace in the lives of believers, whether mature or less mature. [57]
  3. We should not allow our times at the Lord’s Table to become perfunctory, hurriedly dispatched ritual, but, rather, use every opportunity to glory in our union with Christ that was accomplished by his perfect work on the cross. [58] As Citron aptly summarises,

    Christ, who instituted the Sacrament of Baptism as a memorial of our ingrafting into Him, gave the Sacrament of Holy Communion as the sign and pledge of His abiding union with us. Every time we ‘show forth his death’, we are assured of our union with Him, till this union is made perfect when He comes. [59]

    Insofar as the Lord’s Supper is a corporate celebration, we actively recall not only our union with Christ [60] but also the unity we share, in Christ, as brothers and sisters. Thus our thanksgiving (eucharistia) around the Lord’s Table is an acted-out, two-pronged indicative (union with Christ and union with other believers), the very celebration of which is an imperative (‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ – 1 Cor 11:24-26).

  4. Our attitude and approach to prayer ought to be informed and motivated by a proper (Pauline) view of indicative-imperative interplay. Yes, prayer is enjoined upon believers of all times and places (e.g., Col 4:2, 1 Thess 5:17). But as Kevin DeYoung astutely concludes,

    Prayer will always be hard and will always take discipline, but when I see it as a means to communion with God, it feels more like a ‘get to’ than a ‘have to.’ I still need to hear the imperatives about prayer – and even feel convicted when I disobey them – but the indicatives of the gospel make me happy to hear the commands and eager to obey. [61]

  5. Relationships among fellowships or denominations (that is, with those of a different theological stripe) should be guided by the indicative-imperative interplay. As Jonly Joihin has illustrated via his exposition of Romans 15:7 and the example of the Indonesian churches, [62] our being received (or welcomed) by Christ (an indicative) is the basis for our receiving of one another in Christ (an imperative), for the glory of God. The reputation of the Saviour is at stake.
  6. An over-arching prerequisite for individual and corporate health is that our hermeneutic be sound. On the Emmaus road, our Lord expounded what the whole of the Old Testament said about him; in other words, he communicated to those disciples the organic unity of the Scriptures, the one glorious plan of redemption that attained its fullness in him. [63] Michael Emlet, in a much-needed and laudable effort to bridge the often profound gap between sound interpretation and proper application, communicates this truth forcefully:

    Too often our attempts to connect Scripture with life leave people in the position of Odysseus, unchanged and still pining for the siren song of the world, the flesh and the devil. I’m convinced that, in large measure, it is because we have ignored the redemptive-historical character of God’s story and the narrative structure of people’s lives as saints, sufferers, and sinners. As a result, our use of Scripture never really connects the heart of people’s struggles with the glorious, unfolding story of redemption that climaxes in the coming of Jesus. Details of the Bible remain disconnected from the details of people’s lives when we overlook the redemptive meta-narrative that encompasses them both. [64]

If the clarity of God’s progressively revealed plan of redemption – a foundational indicative that undergirds all of biblical theology – is obscured, then our application of biblical truth to actual life situations will be off-target and may constitute adulteration of the word of God, a situation that Paul and his companions took pains to avoid (2 Cor 4:2).


In the Pauline corpus, men are not called to a standard that is impossible to attain, only one that is impossible to attain naturally. The call to supernatural living is predicated upon a divine grant of grace. Only after someone has become a new creature in Christ and is indwelt by the Spirit can he be expected to live supernaturally, to begin and continue in the process of becoming holy in practice, not just in position.

It would be a gross error to conclude that justification is by unmerited divine favour, but sanctification by self-reliant human effort – pulling oneself up by his or her spiritual bootstraps. Spiritual life and progress, wherever and whenever they are found, are fuelled by God’s grace. Nor does the Pauline ethic envision a divine-human synergy, with God doing his part and man his. As Herman Ridderbos has written,

Indicative and imperative thus do not represent a certain division of property in the sense that the indicative denotes the divine and the imperative the human share in the new life, or that the imperative arouses the believer to what God has done for him so that from his side, too, he not fail to give an answer… The imperative is grounded on the reality that has been given with the indicative, appeals to it, and is intended to bring it to full development. [65]

Apart from a foundation of divine grace established or accomplished in the life of a person (the indicative), that person cannot meet the demands (the imperatives) of the Christian life. [66] Thus, sanctification – with all of its ethical commands and principles – rests, and is dependent upon, justification.

But upon the firm foundation of justification, why would not sanctification be perfect and instantaneous? Paul’s use of the indicative and imperative does not denote a contradiction nor momentary forgetfulness on his part but, rather, ‘a tension, expressing the paradox that the kingdom has arrived and is yet to come.’ [67] Doriani refers to this indicative-imperative interplay as ‘the dialectical interaction of this age and the age to come’, and suggests that this relationship defines the Christian life. [68]

Michael Horton wisely warns against confusing the indicative and the imperative, and urges us to see that the imperatives are simply calls to believers to become that which they already, in fact, are. Thereby he argues against the concept of higher-plateaux for victorious Christians, and for understanding that the reality of abundant life is meant for every believer, regardless of the size of one’s faith or the strength of one’s repentance. [69]

Finally, just as Westerholm grasps that the Spirit is the key to the life of the believer, Parsons notes that the Spirit is ‘the link between the indicative and the imperative of Christian reality and existence.’ [70] It is in the Spirit and by the Spirit that a Christian can, with the resources that are his by virtue of having been redeemed by Christ, attain the life intended for, and commanded of, him. [71]