Here is the question: There are a lot of statements in Paul’s letters, where he tells us very clearly, do this or don’t do that. They are imperative statements. Romans 12 is a great example:
9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.
10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor;
11 not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord;
12 rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer,
13 contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not.
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.
16 Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.
17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.
18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.
20 “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS UPON HIS HEAD.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
(Romans 12:9-21, NASB).
Does grace-based Christian living make itself uncomfortable with these verses? What happens if we don’t do these things? Does our justification come under question? Do we become substandard “carnal” Christians? Clearly, he is telling us directly what to do and what not to do! Aren’t we just supposed to set our mind on the things of the Spirit, have done with condemnation, and we will naturally and inevitably do the things the law prescribes from our heart?
I think that it is true that in Christ, the law is inscribed on our heart, and there is no need for us to tell each other “do this” or “do that” or “love the Lord”. This is a hallmark of the new covenant:
10 “FOR THIS IS THE COVENANT THAT I WILL MAKE WITH THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL AFTER THOSE DAYS, SAYS THE LORD: I WILL PUT MY LAWS INTO THEIR MINDS, AND I WILL WRITE THEM UPON THEIR HEARTS. AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE.
11 “AND THEY SHALL NOT TEACH EVERYONE HIS FELLOW CITIZEN, AND EVERYONE HIS BROTHER, SAYING, ‘KNOW THE LORD,’ FOR ALL SHALL KNOW ME, FROM THE LEAST TO THE GREATEST OF THEM.
12 “FOR I WILL BE MERCIFUL TO THEIR INIQUITIES, AND I WILL REMEMBER THEIR SINS NO MORE.”
13 When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.
(Hebrews 8:6-13, NASB).
Go along with me here. In the universe of grace, under Christ’s propitiatory blood, we are no longer under the coercion of law. Remember, in Romans 12 as in all the rest of Paul’s letters, we are to understand the imperatives from the perspective of being urged “by the mercies of God.” You can’t skip Romans 1-11 and jump into the application. The mercies are all important. So, it is as if you have won the lottery. You can’t lose, and you have such an overabundance that you need never worry about being deficient in righteousness or acceptance ever again. If that isn’t straight for you, go back to it, don’t look at the application until you have the foundation.
If someone has won the lottery, does that mean they cease to live at all, to do anything? Since they no longer have to work, is it a blessing to them to lay in bed sucking their thumb doing nothing? Even though they are not obligated to do anything, they need some guidance to know how rich people live. They just don’t know quite how this works. They might run into a rich person and become friends, and the rich friend has been living as a rich person for some time. They might give them counsel like this: “You’re buying groceries yourself at Walmart? NO NO NO! Hire a chef, and have your chef make contacts with local specialty organic farmers and dairy owners who cater to the rich! You are rich now, start living that way!”
These gospel “imperatives” are just like this. As those who are newly rich in a great abundance of grace, we are still accustomed to living Walmart lives when we could be pointed by our grace-rich friends like Paul, who have been doing it a while, how to do this a little more easily. Now, as a Christian, which of these commands in Romans 12 are so onerous? Abhor what is evil? Love what is good? Under grace, that sounds pretty good! Does that negate that redemption is a free gift, or that we are dead to the coercive power of the law? Of course not! He is showing us how to live grace-rich lives of joy and beauty and abundance; we have the means and we are part of the “in” crowd, he is just giving us some guidance towards what our new resurrected self is already inclined towards. As Paul says, and as this line of thinking makes very clear,
23 All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify.
(1 Corinthians 10:23, NASB).
You see that it is not an equation that involves a judgement as to whether you are just or not. ALL THINGS are lawful! As I’ve said elsewhere, it is an aesthetic question, a question of profit, not of morals. Mind you, Paul said the same thing in 1 Corinthians 6 in the midst of a discussion of scandalous sexual deviant sin. As believers, we are empowered to choose virtue as the profitable and desirable way, as the grace-rich community. We don’t need the cheap Walmart thrills of carnal sin, we have the love and favor of God!
Under this paradigm, we can dive into “imperative” passages without fear and without thinking that we are descending back under obligation and law. Look at it all like a rich friend showing you how to stop buying your groceries at Walmart. That is pretty much what is going on.