Preaching the Hard Letters of the New Testament

By Brandon D. Crowe

Preaching is never easy, but some portions of Scripture seem to be easier to explain than others. One of the difficult portions is the collection known as the General (or Catholic) Epistles (James through Jude). Why did James have to say we are justified by works, and not by faith alone? Who are the spirits in prison in 1 Peter, and what practical application does it have? Why would 2 Peter say we participate in the divine nature? How can it be in 1 John that those who are born of God do not sin? You can probably think of other perplexing passages.

One of the difficulties of this and some other portions of Scripture is how they square with theological ballasts such as justification by grace through faith. Can we really say with confidence that all these letters share a common perspective on salvation? Or are there some inconsistencies, however minor, that should caution us from using certain texts to support our Protestant theological emphases?

I deny that we find irreconcilable diversity on such issues. One of the most helpful frameworks that provides clarity is the indicative-imperative structure found throughout Scripture. The indicative speaks of God’s work of salvation through Christ to save us. Think here of justification. The imperative logically follows the indicative and entails a real call to discipleship, but recognizes that we do not save ourselves by our works. Think here of sanctification.

The indicative and imperative must not be confused, but neither must they be separated. Even where we find stringent commands to work out our salvation or real warnings against turning away from the faith, the imperative always assumes the indicative of God’s actions on our behalf.

The Letter of Jude

We can illustrate this from the short, but often difficult, book of Jude. The indicative-imperative structure allows us to penetrate through the strange passages to the framework of Jude’s theology, rendering the letter less foreign than it might seem at first.

  1. The Imperative in Jude. To begin, we should recognize that Jude contains many imperatives. We must contend for the faith (3). In Jude 5 those who were saved from Egypt perished because of lack of belief. Clearly, we are called not to follow their destructive path of faithlessness, but we must persevere in faith. Warnings abound in Jude 5–16, entailing the need to recognize and avoid theological error.Later Jude commands us to build ourselves up in the faith and keep ourselves in the love of God (20–21). But this may raise the question: how does the call to build ourselves up and keep ourselves in the love of God mesh with the role of God’s grace in the Christian life? This brings us to the indicative.
  2. The Indicative in Jude. Despite Jude’s emphasis on the imperative, the indicative frames the letter, underscoring its importance. Jude begins by speaking of the divine calling of God, drawing us to salvation. We are beloved by God the Father, which is seen in our privilege of calling God “Father.” Still in the first verse, Jude speaks of our being kept for, or perhaps by, Jesus Christ. Thus, although we are called to keep ourselves in the love of God, before Jude mentions our responsibility, he speaks of the divine role in keeping us.Additionally, Jude 3 speaks of “the faith once delivered.” This is a reference to the content of the gospel message, which speaks of the work of Christ on our behalf. In other words, “the faith once delivered” refers to the need for faith in a work outside of ourselves.Jude returns to the indicative at the end of the letter. In his marvelous benediction (24–25), he again speaks of the keeping work of God on our behalf (24). Though we are to keep ourselves in the love of God (21), the real power behind the imperative is the indicative of God’s work on our behalf.

Guidance for Today

Therefore, though Jude does not provide a lengthy exposition of the indicative, it clearly provides the soil from which blossoms all he says about the imperative. This is true not only for Jude, but for all the General Epistles. The indicative-imperative framework reminds us that we do not save ourselves, but neither does God’s grace negate our moral obligations. Indeed, one of the problems addressed in these letters is false teachers who denied the proper relationship between the indicative and the imperative.

We encounter similar distortions of grace and discipleship today. Therefore, the General Epistles have a timely word for us. The indicative-imperative structure provides a trustworthy compass to navigate unfamiliar exegetical terrain. When viewed in this framework, the jolting passages of Scriptures—which have the potential to rouse us from spiritual slumber—do not have to be defused or dodged; they can be proclaimed with confidence for the edification of God’s people.

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