Charles H. Talbert, «Indicative and Imperative in Matthean Soteriology», Vol. 82 (2001) 515-538
It is usually thought that Matthew emphasizes the imperative at the expense of the indicative, demand over gift. Identifying Matthew’s indicative is difficult because in chapters 5–25, insofar as disciples are concerned, the narrative is told in terms of ‘omnipotence behind the scenes’. In Matt 5–25 four techniques appropriate to such a method of narration speak of the divine indicative in relation to the imperative. They are (1) I am with you/in your midst, (2) invoking the divine name, (3) it has been revealed to you/you have been given to know, and (4) being with Jesus. They show Matthew’s soteriology is by grace from start to finish.
In virtually all New Testament scholarship it is believed that, at least to some degree, the relation of the indicative (gift) and imperative (demand) in Matthew constitutes a theological problem for Christians. A spectrum of representative opinion will indicate some of the shades of judgment about this issue.
I. The Perceived Problem
(1) Some scholars contend that Matthew is legalistic1. Marxsen is typical. He contrasts two types of ethics. On the one hand, if God is conceived as one who sets requirements and makes His relationship with people dependent on their fulfilling these requirements, then the practice of ethics promises realization of the relationship. It is assumed that humans are capable of meeting the admission requirements. On the other hand, if God is conceived as one who has already come to humans with love — without any precondition — then the relationship already exists and humans can act (ethics) — out of gratitude. It is assumed that humans can act rightly only if they are enabled by God’s prior act. The former type, Marxsen thinks, is a Pharisaic ethic; the latter, a Christian ethic. Marxsen, moreover, believes that Matthew represents a type one ethic. Matthew’s imperative, then, consists of admission requirements for entering the Kingdom of Heaven. He says, further, that to avoid this conclusion, one must demonstrate that Matthew undergirds the imperatives with an indicative that enables the doer to follow the imperatives. He does not believe this can be done2. That is, Matthew’s demand/imperative constitutes God’s requirement of humans if they are to attain a relationship with Him. There is no prior indicative/gift/grace that bestows a relation, unconditionally, quite apart from human performance and to which human performance can respond.