Post last updated on March 5, 2023
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In important respects, chapter 5 marks a transition in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. The transition is noted in part by Paul’s insertion of a short exhortation into the letter: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” This is the kind of transition that is common in his several epistles: Paul moves his reader from an initial presentation of facts to the instruction and application that he makes to follow them. But the point is that his exhortation is made to follow the facts. Only late in this letter does Paul exhort his readers to stand.
Until chapter 5 not one command is present in Galatians, though they will now follow in swift fashion; even so, Paul does not allow his counsel to precede his case, which consists of a careful recollection of God’s work in history. (In Galatians the historical facts are presented in a comparison of covenants.) Indeed, this is to say that God’s revelation fills history with the record of God’s deeds and thereby gives definition and demand to human obedience. What man must do is made answerable to what God has already done—a fact that is eventually confirmed in the Incarnation. The facts of history inform Christian obedience in conformity to faith, but faith is made conformable to what is written (cf. Romans 16:25-26).
One is accordingly reminded of Martyn Lloyd Jones’ remark, spoken in a sermon on Romans, chapter five. “I sometimes think,” he once said, “that the whole secret of the Christian life is to know how to use the word, ‘therefore.’” This is almost axiomatic. The idea, of course, is that Christian obedience arises out of the scripture’s own presentation of truth. One first knows and—therefore and only then—does he discover what to do. In fact, this word “therefore” is the is the very word seen in Galatians 5:1, a conjunctive adverb that connects Paul’s description and explanation of God’s revelation, read in chapters 1-4, to the exhortations and commands that he eventually enumerates in the last part of his letter. Christians stand fast because Christ has made them free.
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This said, the connection between God’s word and man’s deed is not present in strict grammatical construction only. Paul’s apparent play on words in verse 1 establishes the same idea, that God’s facts establish and define Christian obedience. Christians stand fast because Christ has made them free. To stand fast denotes a kind of purposed rigidity, a refusal to move—and yet, the Christian is free. Indeed, Paul’s letter insists that the believer is free from the Mosaic Covenant; but in this way, the freedom that is established in Christ and through faith in the gospel becomes the substantial reason upon which the believer now stands. Rather ironically, his rigidity of stance is produced by the freedom and liberty that is realized in the gospel. Paul has taken most of his letter to describe the various facts that argue against the errors in the Galatian church. Only after he has completed this task does he proceed with instructing believers to the obedience that stands upon the logic of his letter.
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We find, then, particular forms and presentation in scripture, one in which its commands are made to follow the proclamation of its facts. Accordingly, an important distinction belongs to the very design of Paul’s letters. Many people have noted this feature by highlighting the role of the verb in the New Testament scriptures. In verbal communication, these different roles as are referred to as moods. In a mood, a sentence’s verb relates the attitude and purpose of the speaker. Does he command or inform when he writes? Does his speech describe or command?
In short, mood is the grammatical term used to describe the role of the verb in a sentence and, therefore, expresses the attitude of the subject. The English language, for instance, possesses three principal moods: the indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. “The mood (or mode) of a verb indicates whether an action is to be thought of as a fact, command, wish, or condition contrary to fact.”1In Floyd C. and Dillingham Watkins, William B., Practical English Handbook, Eighth Edition ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989), 446. The interrogative and conditional moods are sometimes included with the first three, making five different moods; but some list even more than these and others insist that there are fewer. Usually, then, mood refers to instances where the verb form changes, which is described as “inflection.”
This said, those who write on the structure of the New Testament frequently focus on the distinction between the indicative (descriptive) and imperative (commanding) moods, for in the contrast of these two, we most easily recognize an important pattern that is inherent in scripture and its proclamation. John Carrick has written that that the “indicative mood states, declares, and asserts. It is, for this reason, the fundamental mood of history; and it is also the fundamental mood of preaching. Good preaching will always tend to operate largely, although not exclusively, in the indicative mood.”2John Carrick, The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 15.
A statement is frequently lifted from J. Gresham Machan’s Christianity and Liberalism because it concisely and energetically highlights this distinction. He writes:
The liberal preacher is really rejecting the whole basis of Christianity, which is a religion founded not on aspirations, but on facts. Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity—liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.3J. Gresham Machan, Christianity and Liberalism, (New York: Macmillan Company, 1923). 48. Accessed online.
Machan’s point is that the works of God serve to form and describe the kind of faith that is required of men. When a preacher prescribes obedience without first properly describing and enlarging upon the works of God, he robs his hearers of both the definition and deposit of a man’s faith. “The preaching which neglects the crucial priority of the indicative mood and which focuses largely or exclusively on the imperative mood will inevitably tend toward moralism and legalism.”4Carrick, The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric, 27. Proper attention to this feature encourages the fact that man’s faith and works are properly ordered by the works of God.
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These kinds of considerations may appear to some readers as rather arbitrary or unimportant unless they consider the association of form and content in communicating ideas. After all, despite the occasional difficulties associated with reading Paul’s letters,5cf. 2 Peter 3:16 his manner of writing consistently displays this same pattern. Paul’s epistles possess a particular balance between indicative and imperatives. In fact, sections that highlight indicatives often far outnumber those in which commands and instruction are issued in the imperative mood. For instance, Paul’s letter to the Romans contains 16 chapters, but only three chapters contain imperatives. The distinction is also very notable in Ephesians. This does not prioritize the indicatives over the imperatives of scripture, but, rather, makes the indicatives the foundation and fuel of man’s obedience.
John Carrick has noted the prevalence of this relationship, as well as what it must mean for those who read and then also preach the scriptures.
Moreover, the very fact of the indicative-imperative structure of New Testament Christianity demonstrates that, under the superintendence of the Spirit of God, the theology of the gospel of Christ has been conveyed in the Scriptures by means of certain distinct grammatical or rhetorical categories. The obvious corollary to this fact for the preacher is that the grammatical or rhetorical categories employed in preaching the Word of God have themselves profound theological implications. ‘Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative’; it does not begin with an urgent imperative. This fact is of absolutely fundamental significance.6Carrick, The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric, 148.
Paul’s manner of writing, then, highlights his intention, and in this way confirms one of the priorities that we must possess as we faithfully read and proclaim scripture’s message. While Paul is certainly concerned with eliciting the obedience of his readers,7Noted, for instance, in Philippians 2:12 he does not do this without first informing their faith, giving them its requisite content. Paul first makes his readers to understand the facts upon which their faith depends, for faith must understand the works of God before it gives answer to the will of God.
Notes & References
|↑1||In Floyd C. and Dillingham Watkins, William B., Practical English Handbook, Eighth Edition ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989), 446.|
|↑2||John Carrick, The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 15.|
|↑3||J. Gresham Machan, Christianity and Liberalism, (New York: Macmillan Company, 1923). 48. Accessed online.|
|↑4||Carrick, The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric, 27.|
|↑5||cf. 2 Peter 3:16|
|↑6||Carrick, The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric, 148.|
|↑7||Noted, for instance, in Philippians 2:12|