Indicative and Imperative


Luke 6:43-49

The two short paragraphs before us complete Luke’s much shorter version of what we know as the Sermon on the Mount. Interestingly, this material – though in a significantly different form – occurs as well at the end of Matthew’s version of the sermon.

Text Comment

v.43     The “for” with which v. 43 begins indicates that the Lord’s point is connected to what he had just said about taking the log out of your own eye before worrying about taking the speck out of the eye of another. Hypocrites, people who are proud and unwilling to face the truth about themselves, can never be good teachers or disciples. Your fundamental attitudes shape your actions.

v.45     The Lord speaks very generally here. He doesn’t tell us what the “good” is that he is speaking about. His point here is not to talk about what particular actions are good or bad – though he has done that earlier and he does that at length elsewhere – but rather to emphasize that each tree, or each heart, bears a characteristic fruit. You can count on a fig tree to produce figs and not pears and in the same way you can count on a good heart to produce a good life. In other words, the outward life reveals the heart. Obviously “fruit” here refers to the product of one’s life or how one lives. As John Calvin observed, “Nothing is more difficult than to counterfeit virtue.” And the reason is because of this inevitable connection between the inner and outer.

            As you know, throughout the Bible “heart” refers to the inner self, the fundamental nature of a person, that center from which come the thoughts, the attitudes, and eventually the actions of life.

            The point applies to all our behavior, but the reference to speech continues to connect this principle to the points the Lord was making before regarding how his disciples should teach and lead others.

v.46     The sad reality of temporary or false disciples had already surfaced in the Lord’s ministry. There were people who showed themselves enthusiastic for Jesus in one way or another other – they were coming from all over the land to see and hear him, to witness his work – but their lives did not change, their behavior was not altered to conform to the pattern of the Lord’s teaching. They called him “Lord” but they did not do what he said;  they did not obey him as Lord. The Puritans gave such people names; they called them “Almost Christians,” “Gospel hypocrites,” and “Temporaries.” Jesus offers an explanation of this situation so we will know what to think of such people and, still more, how to judge our own profession of faith in Christ.

v.48     Digging deep to lay a solid foundation is hard and expensive work and, when the house is finished, no one can see it. For that reason there are many who ignore the foundation. But eventually a good foundation will make all the difference! The storm and flood here are not likely to be the trials of life, though the point applies with equal force to them, but the last judgment itself. Matthew makes that point explicit by adding to the statement about good and bad trees the final thought: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” [7:19]

v.49     If you remember, in Matthew the difference between the two houses is found in where they were built, one on rock, the other on sand. Here, though the point is obviously the same, the difference lies in how the houses were built, not where they were built. Both houses may appear to be sound, but only one rests on a firm foundation. Such differences may indeed suggest that the Lord preached the material of this sermon in various settings and in each case the material was delivered in a slightly different form. He didn’t have a manuscript in front of him from which he was reading. This suggests that Luke may not be simply giving us a shorter version of the same sermon we have in greater length in Matthew, but is in fact giving us another version of the teaching the Lord Jesus delivered frequently in different settings during his ministry.

The Lord Jesus is talking here, in both short paragraphs, about obedience and, in particular, obedience to him. Did you notice the three verbs in v. 47?  Everyone who comes, who hears, and who does his words is the true disciple. There were many who came to hear Jesus. As we read in the introduction to this sermon back in v. 18, many came to hear the Lord from all over Palestine. In fact they were coming to see and hear him from as far away as Tyre and Sidon. We heard the Lord address his remarks to those who hear, in v. 27. But there are those who hear who do not do, as we just read in v. 46. Again in v. 49 the Lord tells us plainly that he is giving a warning about the one who hears but who does not do! The true disciple is the one who comes, hears, and does! Luke’s version of the sermon, as Matthew’s, makes it primarily a summons to obey Jesus. [Bock, i, 625]

Obey in what way? Well, of course in the immediate context the words that the true disciples of Jesus are to do are the commandments given earlier in the sermon: to love our enemies, to bless and not curse, to treat others with kindness, to withhold judgment, and so on. But as the Gospel of Luke proceeds we will hear a great many more of the Lord’s words that his disciples are to do. We will hear much more of our responsibility for others (think of the Lord’s parable of the Good Samaritan that we will read in chapter 10); but we will hear as well of our duty to pray, to acknowledge the Lord Jesus before men, to be humble and honest about our sins, to lay up our treasures in heaven, not on earth, and not to love money, to live our lives in the expectation of the Second Coming of the Lord, to be faithful in our marriages and our sexual life, to be grateful to God in all things, to repent of our sins, to give to the house of God, and on and on. Paul in his letters, full of ethical instruction as they are, will add only detail to the description of the true Christian life that Jesus already gave us himself in the Gospels.

And, lest anyone misunderstand, this is a point made repeatedly in the NT, the words Jesus requires us to do are nothing more nor less than what the Law of Moses required of the people of Israel. God’s commandments have not changed through the ages. Certain regulations regarding worship may have been altered to suit new circumstances, but the fundamental obligations facing us in life are today what they have always been. There is a reason why Alexander Whyte referred to the Sermon on the Mount as “Moses’ last sermon that has come down to us,” and why Martin Luther referred to the Sermon on the Mount as “Mosissimus Moses,” that is, Moses to the nth degree, or Moses quadrupled! [Stott, Christian Counter-Culture, 37] There is nothing new here except perhaps that the obedience required is made even more radical, sacrificial, and demanding. Mosissimus Moses indeed!

But what is profoundly important about the Lord’s summons to obedience is how he relates our obedience to our nature or our heart. Good trees bear good fruit. To be sure, that does not mean he will not give commands to the good trees; he gives many commands. It is not as if the good heart needs no summons to obedience. Nor will the fact that a man lives according to his nature prevent the Lord from warning good trees that they must bear good fruit or else, as he does in vv. 46-49. But still obedience rests on something deeper, something over which we have no control and for which we are entirely dependent upon the Lord and his grace. This point is not made explicitly here, to be sure. We are not told here – though we are told this in many other places in the Gospel – that we cannot make our own tree good, that we cannot purify and renew our own heart. That is a work only our Creator and our re-Creator can do. But the general truth has already been revealed in powerful ways in the ministry of the Lord Jesus so far, in other words in the larger context of this sermon. The paralyzed man and the leper could not remake themselves. And it’s made perfectly clear that paralysis and leprosy are pictures of man’s bondage to sin in his human sinful nature. But Jesus transformed the leper and the paralytic with his mighty power. Those who were possessed by demons could not free themselves. But Jesus liberated them by the mere utterance of his Word and transformed their lives by his gracious power. We will have two more examples of this divine power at work giving life to the dead in the next two paragraphs. Think also of Levi, sitting at his tax collector’s booth, and how suddenly, by the sovereign power of the Lord’s words, his heart was changed and he began to follow Jesus. He became, in other words, of a sudden and not in any respect by his own power, a good tree. He had been a bad tree, now he was a good tree. And good fruit began immediately to appear in his life as it will.

The Lord’s summons to obedience, stern, demanding as it is in this sermon, is based upon the fact that obedience is the inevitable fruit of God’s gracious working in our lives before it is the cause of his blessing upon our lives.

In teaching Latin at Covenant High School I often have to go over with my students the moods of the verb. In fact I always have to go over the moods, and then again and again. Verbal mood is an essential part of any language’s grammar. Mood is simply an old form of the word “mode” which means “manner.” The moods, as you may remember from your English grammar long ago, are the forms of a verb, particular inflections or spellings, that indicate whether the action or state a verb denotes is conceived of as fact or in some other manner, such as wish or possibility or command. That is, the moods are the manner in which the action of the verb is expressed. In English and in Latin there are four moods: indicative, imperative, subjunctive, and infinitive. Amamus is indicative. “We love,” a statement of fact. Amare is infinitive: “to love,” the basic  idea of the verb, without reference to any particular situation. Amate is imperative: “love,” spoken as a command. And amemus is the subjunctive, a wish or an obligation: “We should love” or “Let us love.”

If you are rightly to understand the Bible you must know two moods in particular: the indicative and the imperative, and the relationship between them. The indicative is the statement of fact. We have it here: “no good tree bears bad fruit.” The imperative is the command and we have it here as well: “Do what I tell you.” But the indicative comes first, always first. It may not always be present in any particular paragraph. But in the larger context it is always there and always first. What is determines what ought to be. What Jesus Christ has done for us and in us – the indicative – is the reason why we must obey, is the reason why it is possible for us to obey, and the reason why we will obey. When he makes a tree good, good fruit will come. It will not come without his summoning it from us with commands and with warnings and with promises and encouragements – such as we have here in vv. 46-49 – but it will come.

There are, in fact, more indicatives that lie beneath the imperatives of the Word of God, more reasons for us to obey, in other words. We must obey – imperative – because 1) God is our Maker and we his creatures (abortion is practiced and gay marriage is advocated in America today precisely because as a people we have lost the conviction that we are creatures and owe our beings, our nature, and our existence to another); because 2) as Jesus warns us here, God will judge our lives on the Great Day and punish disobedience and reward obedience; 3) because heaven and hell await on the other side of death (or, as he puts it here, there are houses that will stand and houses that will be ruined); and 4) because this world and human life have been made by their Maker to run in a certain way and obedience to his commandments is that way. You can try to live your life without regard to God’s commandments, but it isn’t going to work. You can disobey God for a time and seem to escape any consequence, but soon enough you will have to face the music.

Or as C.S. Lewis once put the point:

“If Christianity should happen to be true, then it is quite impossible that those who know this truth and those who don’t should be equally well equipped for leading a good life. Knowledge of the facts must make a difference to one’s actions.” [God in the Dock, 109 (my emphasis)]

The world wasn’t made in such a way that disobedience will produce the same happy result that obedience will. All of those “is” and “will” statements are indicatives and they all lead inexorably and undeniably to the necessity of our obedience to Jesus and his commandments and, as well, to the foolishness and ultimate futility of disobedience to him. The imperative depends upon the indicative in the teaching of the Bible and in life. Obedience to God is the path to true freedom in human life because of all the facts about God, man, and human life. The imperatives of Holy Scripture, the commands we are given, do not hang in mid-air. They rest on a foundation of fact. The imperatives flow from the indicatives.

Now don’t imagine that this is too obvious to require comment. The fact of the matter is that we are living in a remarkable time in the history of Western civilization and in a society in which a great effort is underway to detach the imperative from the indicative. In our society it is still thought and you hear endless talk about this in politics, in social theorizing, I say it is still thought that people ought to be good and do good, though what the “good” actually is is increasingly unclear to people. There are still imperatives, in other words, but there is now no foundation for doing and being good. There is no reason for it. There is no indicative underlying the imperative. There are no facts that make obedience imperative apart from the threat that the government might punish you should you disobey. But there is a great deal of human life and behavior concerning which the government is and must be either unaware or indifferent. There is no longer fear of the judgment of God, of the great storm that is soon to break upon mankind.  There is no living sense among most Americans that we owe our lives to God as our Maker and they they are not ours to dispose of as we wish. There are only some of us who any longer think we owe a great debt to God’s grace and that such a debt can be discharged only by our grateful and willing obedience to him. In America today the “ought” is suspended on nothing; it has no foundation in fact, and it doesn’t take a prophet to predict where that will lead us. We see it all around us all the time: a disobedient people suffering for their disobedience, and the great storm is still to come!

The “is” and the “will be” – the indicative – finally makes all the difference in the world to the “ought,” the “we must.” We Christians may well agree with materialists, naturalists, atheists and practical atheists in our society that we should have good sewers and efficient health care. But before long the differences must appear and widen because we claim a very different set of facts than they do. Our indicatives are very different than theirs. We may both be for good education, but we have very different ideas about what good education must be because we have very different concepts of what is a truly good life. Materialists make a great deal of society as an ideal, because, after all societies endure far longer than individuals. But Christians know that societies are temporary while individuals last forever. For Christians the happiness of people,  their worldly comfort, isn’t as important as their goodness or justice, and so on. You see, it is the facts that drive the understanding of obligation or obedience. But it is also facts that make obedience, true obedience, even possible. Facts make obedience necessary in both ways: they make obedience necessary as an obligation and they make it possible, even inevitable as a feature of human life.

The connection between indicative and imperative that we find here at the end of Luke’s account of the Lord’s sermon is particularly important. It is one we find in many places in the Word of God and as a special emphasis of the Apostle Paul. It amounts to this: real disciples of Jesus obey because it is in their nature to obey. The Lord has made of them good trees and good trees produce good fruit. It is a law of nature and of the kingdom of God!

The Lord uses that connection between the renewed human nature or his work of transformation in a sinful human life, on the one hand, and the obedience of life on the other, inevitable as that connection is and must be, to make the point that you can distinguish his true and his spurious disciples by this means. Because you can rely on the connection between the fact – the nature of the tree – and the fruit that it bears, the obedience of a life, you can argue backwards to the nature of the tree from the nature of its fruit. You can do that for others, to some extent, to be sure, but here the Lord is laying all the emphasis on our doing this ourselves with regard to ourselves. He is obviously not encouraging us in this way to pass judgment on the salvation of others, because he has just forbidden us to do that in v. 37. He is obviously not intending us to become experts at examining the fruit that others bear in their lives because he has just told us to take the log out of our own eye before trying to take the speck out of the eye of someone else. What he has said here is for each of us alone, for each of us to apply to himself or herself.

He’s not talking about your knowledge of someone else’s life; he’s talking about your examination of your own. And for centuries now, faithful followers of the Lord have taken his solemn instruction here and applied it to their own hearts as he intended that they should. How can I know that my heart has been changed? After all, there is still a great deal of sin in it; I continue to find evil things attractive; I stumble in many ways. How do I know that I am a good tree?

The Lord’s answer is very short here and must be elaborated with a great deal of other teaching from elsewhere in the Gospels and the Bible. There we will learn that good fruit is not perfect fruit, that there will be some rotten fruit mixed together with the good, at least so long as we live in this world. You can get some good figs and bad figs from a fig tree, as it were. But still the point is made and made and made again. You will know the Christians by their obedience, by their love for one another, by the purity of their lives, by their love for God and gratitude to him, and by their unshakeable commitment to the Lord Jesus as their Savior and their Master. You can tell them from others by the fact that it is obvious that they have dug a deep foundation and built their lives upon the solid rock of God’s love, God’s Word, God’s law, and God’s Son and his sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. Good trees produce good fruit.

Self-examination can be carried too far to be sure. Navel gazing is of no spiritual value in and of itself. But it is to ignore the Bible’s plainest teaching to think that the question of my own salvation need never enter my mind or need never be the subject of serious, informed, and responsible reflection.

I happened to notice in the most recent Christianity Today [March 2012, p. 9] the result of some surveying done among Americans with regard to the famous question: “If I were to die today, do I know for sure that I would go to heaven?” It is the question Billy Graham often put to his immense audiences in his evangelistic crusades and the question around which the late D. James Kennedy constructed his famous evangelistic presentation, Evangelism Explosion. You’ve all heard it. Among church-going Americans and among those who self-identify as born-again or evangelical some 58% say they never ask themselves this question or wonder about its answer. Among those who never attend church some 67% say they never wonder if they are going to heaven when they die. Altogether, about half of Americans say they never wonder about the answer to that question. Of course, no one knows how honest those people were giving answer to the survey.

But if there is a heaven and hell – and can anyone tell me that they know there are not such destinies awaiting us after death (after all, there is surely a great deal of both heaven and hell already in this life) – I say, if there is heaven and hell then how foolish must a person be never even to entertain the question. But, again, it is not non-Christians we are thinking about; it is not even other Christians. It is with respect to ourselves that we hear the Lord saying both that a good tree bears good fruit and that his disciples are those and only those who come, who hear, and who obey!

“The beginning of all intelligence is to know yourself,” said Augustine.  Indeed, in another place, Augustine laid it down as a law that “If one knows himself, he will know God.” [ANF ii, 271] Calvin began his immortal Institutes with this sentence: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” “The knowledge of ourselves is fundamental to all religion,” said Charles Simeon. But there are a great many people who do not know themselves; who are, in fact, utterly ignorant about the true character of their lives. They have never honestly examined themselves to see what sort of tree they are.

So again and again in the Bible, now in one way now in another, we are commanded, as the Lord told Haggai the prophet to tell Israel, to “give careful thought to your ways.” The old writers used to ring the changes on the danger of failing to consider your own life and the advantages of self-examination. In his second great allegory of salvation, The Holy War, John Bunyan has a character he named Mr. Prywell, who is described as a faithful and vigilant man and a great lover of the town of Mansoul. Mr. Prywell is Bunyan’s way of speaking of self-examination as an essential protection for the soul and as a very important means of spiritual growth and of the assurance of our salvation. Again, Mr. Prywell, says Bunyan, was a man “that is no tattler, nor raiser of false reports, and that talks nothing of news, but by very solid arguments.” He wasn’t examining others; he was taking stock of his own life and what it told him of his own heart. Mr. Prywell cared to know what sort of tree he was. He examined his own desires, his own priorities, his own words, his own behavior, not guessing at what others’ might be. He was making sure that he was found among the good trees!

It is self-examination that makes a person worry about his salvation and the state of his relationship with God, but it is self-examination that also serves to lay those worries to rest, because it is surely the case, as any reader of the Lord’s words here can tell, that the Lord thought it was possible for his disciples to know both that they were doing his words and, as a consequence, that they were good trees. We may, when we consider our lives, no doubt in fact we will, find much that, as John Henry Newman once wrote in a letter to his mother, makes me “shudder at myself.” [Cited by Whyte, Bunyan Characters, iii, 155] But if we are his disciples we will also find there when we dig down the strong foundation underneath and the fruit that only the good tree can bear.

There is an irony here to be sure. Our Savior has just commanded us to be other-centered, to live our lives for others and to stop thinking always and only about ourselves. But at the same time there is a kind of introspection, of self-attention that is necessary for an other-centered life. It is the kind of introspection that has a practical purpose at particular times. It is a discipline and a duty, not a habit of life, still less a kind of morbid preoccupation. Ian Tait, the English pastor known to some of you, used to say that biblical self-examination was taking the light of God’s Word down into the cellar of our hearts to see what was there, so that we could deal with it honestly and in the faith of Jesus. Morbid introspection was taking a camp-bed down with us and planning to stay! There have been many Christians through the ages, aided by a scrupulous conscience and a personality inclined to worry, who have taken the Lord’s words here not as the simple exhortation that they are but as reason to doubt their salvation for most of their lives.

I have on my bookshelf a biography of a Scottish pastor, the uncle by marriage of a friend of mine, a Canadian minister who used to belong to our presbytery. This man had a nervous breakdown over his fear that he might be among those who hear the words of the Lord but don’t do them, even though at the time there were many who would have gladly testified that he was a man in whom the evidences of God’s grace shone particularly brightly. We are talking about biblical self-examination, not obsessive worry.

Examining one’s obedience to test the commitment and the spiritual nature of one’s heart is certainly not the only way to gain assurance of one’s salvation and more of the joy of the Lord that comes from the living sense that you are one of God’s good trees. But it is one way that is urged upon us not only by the Lord himself, but by a host of biblical writers and by the wisest of Christians ever since. John in his first letter says much the same as Jesus said here and at much greater length.

But take the Lord’s simple point. His disciples don’t simply nod their heads at what he says. They do it! This principle, that I have a Lord whom I am to obey, a Master who commands my obedience, dominates and will dominate the life of every true disciple of the Lord Jesus. It will dominate his or her life at home, at work, on the bus, in the office, in the street, at play, in church, everywhere. This is true, I know, of most all of you, wonderfully true as it ought to be, the facts being what they are: the facts about us and the facts about God and the facts about the storm that is so soon to break upon human life. Be sure it is true about you and if it is not, plead with God to make you, as he did the leper and the paralyzed man and Matthew sitting at his tax collector booth, into a good tree.

And then come back to these two short paragraphs and consider them again, not every moment of every day to be sure, but from time to time. It is all too easy to be someone who says to Jesus “Lord, Lord,” but who does not do what he says. Vast multitudes of people in the church throughout the ages and today are perfectly described by those words. All the more reason for us to take care and to consider ourselves and our ways.

And remember, whether or not you think carefully about all of this, however often you consider your ways and take the measure of your obedience to the commandments the Lord Jesus, so long as you are doing the Lord’s words, you will be and you will know yourself to be his true disciple. And, in the light of the approaching storm and flood, that is the one thing, the only thing, you absolutely have to know!