A good deal of Paul’s letters involves some form of telling his readers what they ought to be doing. This is not very surprising for the letters, like 1 Corinthians, where he is writing in response to problems, difficulties, and disputes that he has heard of. Where there is disagreement on an issue, Paul is exercising his apostolic oversight to present a resolution, and where those he is writing to are going wrong, he needs to direct them to a better way of doing things in the light of what God has done for us in Jesus.
Perhaps, though, it is a little more surprising that he includes so much of this ‘hortatory’ or ‘paraenetic‘ material in letters like Romans, where he appears to be largely setting out his understanding of the gospel in order to establish common ground with his audience. Although there are hints of differences that need resolving, principally between Jewish and Gentile believers in relation to Jewish food and festival laws, it is still striking that Paul offers what we now have as four full chapters of instruction, which, together with the greetings and further instruction in chapter 16, form almost a third of the whole letter! It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, for Paul, action must follow understanding—that you simply cannot separate the process of receiving and understanding the grace of God in Jesus, and responding to it in a changed way of living.
This is frequently missed, so that some people suggest that, if we have to do something in response to the gospel, our action is somehow ‘earning’ our salvation, so that we are not relying on God’s grace alone. Not so! cries John Barclay; God’s grace is indeed unconditioned (in the sense that you do not need to be worthy to receive it), but it is not unconditional.
Luther was anxious about any language of obligation or obedience if it implied trying to win favor with God. As a result, some Protestants believe it’s inappropriate for God to expect something in return, because it would somehow work against grace. They believe a gift should be given without any expectation of return. However, that can lead to notions of cheap grace—that God gives to us and doesn’t care about what we do. On the other hand, the Calvinist and, in different ways, the Methodist–Wesleyan traditions have rightly understood that the gift of God in Christ is based on conditions, in a sense. While there is no prior worth for receiving the gift, God indeed expects something in return. Paul expects those who receive the Spirit to be transformed by the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit. As he puts it, we are under grace, which can legitimately lead to obedience, even obligation. (emphasis mine)
Note here that Barclay is linking three things together: our lack of prior worth; God’s gracious gift; our subsequent transformation and obedience. Barclay’s emphasis on obligation only works when it is firmly located in this sequence—the conditional nature of God’s grace only makes sense when we first understand it is unconditioned. This is sometimes expressed using grammatical terms. There is an imperative to the gospel (things that we need to do) but they only and always follow the indicative (what God has already done for us). So all our action, obedience and response must be in the light of what God has done for us.
But that gives us a challenge, and it has recently given me some particular challenges! Because we usually read, preach and teach on shorter passages, it is easy for the imperative to be detached, to a greater or lesser degree, from the indicative. I once came across an example of a sermon in an evangelical church that, in theory at least, focussed on the grace of God, but the sermon end with a list of things we should do—we should read our Bible, we should pray, we should…and so on. And this wasn’t even from a text which was in the imperative, but from a narrative passage!
More broadly, in churches with a strong preaching tradition, this use of ‘what we should do’ can easily become a way in which those who are preaching exercise power and control over a passive congregation of listeners. The claim might be made ‘Well, Paul tells people what to do, so we can too!’ but this fails to recognise the wider context within Paul’s writings and theology, and the integrated connection between grace and obligation that we find there.
My particular challenge recently was preaching from Eph 4.25–32:
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Those who have been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (TNIV)
The task of preaching on this passage presented several challenges.
First, the preceding passage contained much of the ‘indicative’, as Paul rehearsed the change that God has effected for us in Jesus, so that we no longer live as we once did. This passage is now saturated with the ‘imperatives’ that flow from that, so how should I preach on this given that that someone else had preached on the preceding passage in the previous week? The key thing to notice is the opening ‘therefore’; everything here flows from everything that has gone before.
Secondly, unlike with Romans, in Ephesians Paul does not follow a linear, logical argument, but instead (according to Ben Witherington) is deploying ‘Asiatic epideictic rhetoric’. This means that Paul states and restates things, often using lofty and inspiring language to paint a picture. I was struck by the way, in these chapters, Paul is constantly moving back and forward between what God has done and what we must do in response.
(In case you were thinking that this was all a bit theoretical and abstract, it is worth noting that this approach is precisely how much advertising functions—using lofty language to praise certain virtuous ways of living as a way of getting you to follow a specific path of action viz: ‘buy our product’. You can read all about it in this dissertation.)
Thirdly, and flowing from this, I noticed that, although this passage is primarily ‘imperative’, Paul has laced through it some of the reasons for living in the way we do. So, for example, we must put off falsehood and speak truth because we are members of one body, and this last observation points back to Paul’s argument about reconciliation in Christ from chapter 2. We should not grieve the Holy Spirit because we have been sealed by him in anticipation of the future, which points back to his language in chapter 1—and so on.
Finally, my major observation was this: what was the rhetorical impact of this description of the community living out their new life in Christ for Paul’s first readers? What it have given them a sense of obligation or burden—or would it have done something else? Is Paul giving them a list of things we ‘must’ do—or is he painting a compelling and inspiring picture of what life could be like in this new community of redemption, a foretaste of what is to come when we see God face to face?
I decided that Paul intended the latter, not the former, and this encouraged me to take a rather unusual and radical approach to the passage.
- I began by talking about the most beautiful and inspiring places I had been to, and invited the congregation to recall the most beautiful place they could think of.
- Rather than giving a detailed exposition of the different things Paul is encouraging, I attempted to translate that into an experiential description of what such a community would be like. This, surely, is the intention behind Paul’s description.
- I then connected these things with what God has done for us—not so much in theological terms (since that had happened the previous week) but in existential terms: what sort of people could live in a community like this? What must God have effected in them?
- I ended with a personal story of online encounter with someone on the other side of the world, which exemplified for me what this beautiful community might look like.
Of the three kinds of speech (according to Aristotle) that we can deploy—logos, ethos and pathos—there was more pathos and less logos than I think I would usually deploy. But two interesting things resulted. First, people did appeared to be genuinely moved and inspired, and the elements of logos that I incorporated gave substance to the pathos. Secondly, a colleague said to me that the thing he came away with was the phrase ‘God has done everything we need to make this happen.’ That encouraged me to think that I had made the connections between indicative and imperative, between the grace of God and our response, in a way that was faithful to Paul.
See what you think!