by Quentin McCart1
The worst part of my time in the Army was Basic Training. Although the days were filled with much more activity than an average duty day "down range," activities were accompanied with endless commands, "smokings," and other stressors that made life quite unpleasant.2
After completing Basic Training it seemed like I had achieved quite an accomplishment. It took me some time to realize that almost everyone passes Basic Training; as long as you wake up every morning and follow the commands of the Drill Sergeants, it's actually quite difficult to fail. The military isn't interested in expending a bunch of money failing people out of their organization. One thing we were often reminded of, however, was that the Drill Sergeants had done everything they required us to do, twice: as privates in Basic Training themselves, then in Drill Sergeant School. In other words, the Drill Sergeants knew from experience we were fully capable of following their orders.
Though stressful (and mean!), the Drill Sergeants had a goal: to graduate Army privates capable of surviving and thriving in combat conditions. While our Lord is no Drill Sergeant, He does desire our best, which includes thriving in the spiritual combat zone. Success requires obedience and, like a Drill Sergeant, God understands what we are and are not capable of obeying. God does not tell people to do something that they are unable to do. Likewise, God does not tell people to do something that they are already and necessarily doing. Commands are given to people who are capable of following them, but capability doesn't mean inevitability; the person must make a positive volitional response.
As an exercise in how to apply this basic principle, one should pay attention to the moods of the verbs in the Greek New Testament. Moods define the verb's "relation to reality: that which has, will, or does now exist" (Dana and Mantey, pg. 165). There are essentially two ways to describe a relation to reality: "that which is actual and that which is possible" (pg. 166). The most common mood is the indicative, "which denotes the verbal idea as actual" (pg. 166). For example, in Paul's great discourse on the believer's position in Christ (Eph 1:3-14),3 one will find the use of the indicative: God chose (aorist middle indicative) us in him (v. 4); in Christ we have (present active indicative) redemption (v. 7); when we believed in him, we were sealed (aorist passive indicative) by the Holy Spirit (v. 13). Paul uses the indicative mood to describe the actual reality for the Ephesian believers, and, by extension, all believers.
The indicatives indicate what the Christian is, what he possesses, what he has obtained in Christ. Because he is such a thing, he can obey certain commands.4 And when Paul moves to the actions expected of the believer in the latter half of the letter, he also switches moods. It is popular in certain theological circles to insist that if a Christian isn't doing certain things, it demonstrates that he isn't actually a believer. But, if that were true, one should find epistles, such as Ephesians, filled with indicatives from first to last: since you are a believer, you are this type of person, and you inevitably and necessarily do this type of thing. But instead of finding more indicatives in the "how to live" section of Ephesians (4:25–6:20), one finds imperatives. "The imperative mood is the mood of command or entreaty-the mood of volition...It expresses neither probability nor possibility, but only intention, and is, therefore, the furthest removed from reality" (Dana and Mantey, 174). Certainly with a command comes an expectation of obedience, but obedience is contingent on the positive volitional response of the one being commanded, it's not inevitable.
Ephesians 4:25-6:20 is filled with imperatives. It is given in the context of a solemn exhortation (Eph 4:17) concerning how the believer must live, or, at least, how the believer should no longer live. After urging the believer to "no longer walk as the Gentiles do" (Eph 4:17) and explaining how that is achieved internally: "to be renewed in the spirit of your minds," (v. 23), and "to put on the new man" (v. 24), Paul gives his readers the actions expected of them, and he does it using the imperative mood.
Imperatives in this last long section of Ephesians include such things as: speak (present active imperative) the truth (4:25); do not grieve (present active imperative) the Holy Spirit (4:30); be imitators (present middle imperative) of God (5:1); love (present active imperative) your wives (5:25); obey (present active imperative) your earthly masters; finally, become strong (present passive imperative) in the Lord (6:10)!
The Latin motto of my "down range" infantry battalion was Volens et Potens, which means, "Willing and Able." The unbeliever has only one command of God which he is able to obey: "Believe (aorist active imperative) on the Lord Jesus!" (Acts 16:31). Those who obey this command are divinely enabled to obey the rest resulting in joy and eternal life and victory and all to the glory of God. We, in Christ, are able. May we also be willing!1 Quentin does support missionary work, teaching students (many of whom are the children of missionaries) at GDQ International Christian School in Tirana, Albania.
2 "Down range" in Basic Training meant: "at your assigned duty station after Basic Training." There it meant "deployed overseas to a combat zone." "Smokings" is punishment usually in the form of some sort of callisthenic exercise.
3 This paper will work from the Pauline epistle to the Ephesians, but one could conduct the same exercise using other NT epistles.
4 I don't mean to suggest here that the believer can obey on his own in his own strength. c.f. Hawley, Grant, "Our Inability, His Ability," available here, (19 May 2016).
Dana, H.E. and Julius R. Mantey. A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament.
London: MacMillan Publishing, 1957.