The Indicative/Imperative and the Christian Life
Who says theology is unimportant? There are plenty of times in which a little theology can go a long way in not only helping us to better understand the Word of God, but to actually help us in our Christian life. That after all is the ultimate aim of theology; it is not meant to be a mere intellectual exercise, but something to be used as an aid to loving God more and serving him better.
One little theological principle, known as the indicative/imperative, is a very good example of this. It is not only a vital key to helping us better understand the theology of Paul, but all of Scripture as well. And a working knowledge of it should help us all in better living our Christian life.
Let me preface my remarks by asking a few brief questions: How exactly are we to live the Christian life? Is it all God, as many believers argue? They will insist, “Let go and let God.” Or is it all our own activity, as others will argue? The crude version of this is “God helps those who help themselves.”
Or is it a combination of the two? The short answer is yes – it is both a matter of God working on our behalf, but also of us doing things. A key to understanding all this, especially as we see in Paul’s thought, is to be aware of how he uses the indicative and imperative.
So what is that all about? In both English and New Testament Greek grammar the verb is described in terms of tense, mood, etc. (The noun is described in terms of cases, etc.) Two moods are worth highlighting here.
The indicative mood indicates or expresses an objective fact or reality. It makes a statement or asks a question. It is declarative, denoting a simple assertion or interrogation. It is the mood of certainty. As to the New Testament, the indicative refers to what God has done for believers in Christ. It declares the reality of what Christ has done for us. This is the God side of the equation.
The imperative mood in contrast expresses a command, an order, an entreaty, a request or an exhortation. It is the mood of volition. Theologically, the imperative calls on believers to live in a certain way, for example, in a Godly manner. This is the believer’s side of the equation.
Of interest, the imperative usually flows from and depends upon the indicative. In a theological context, first we have the theological proclamation, and then we have the moral exhortation. The “indicative-imperative” relationship can be expressed like this: “God has done this, therefore you should do that.”
This has been put in various forms:
-“What Christ has done is the basis for what the believer must do.” (James Dunn)
-“Because God works and has worked, therefore man must and can work.” (Herman Ridderbos)
-“In the NT, the imperative of ethical action is rooted within the indicative of God’s act and is part of God’s gracious act.” (Gene Green)
This reflects the standing/state relationship which we often speak about. While we have a perfect standing in Christ because of what he has done for us, we still must work on our actual state. Our standing is the indicative, while our state is the imperative.
This is also reflected in the justification/sanctification relationship. Freely by God’s grace we are justified completely in God’s sight when we become Christians. But the rest of the Christian life involves the process of sanctification whereby we become more and more Christlike. Justification is the indicative (declaring righteous), while sanctification is the imperative (making righteous).
We are to become what we are, in other words. We are declared to be righteous in God’s sight because of the finished work of Christ, but we are to live this out in ongoing, progressive sanctification. In faith and obedience we follow our Lord, becoming more like him and less like our old selves. But all this is based on what God has already done on our behalf.
There are plenty of examples of this in the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul. Here are some of them:
Romans 6:4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
Romans 6:11-12 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.
Romans 13:14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
1 Corinthians 5:6-7 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast–as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed (in reverse order here).
Or as the KJV puts it: Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:
As David Garland comments, “The imperative to cleanse out the old leaven is predicated on the indicative: they are unleavened. In other words, Paul tells them to be what they are, to live like Christians. Who they are is revealed in what they do. What they do comes from who they are.”
Galatians 5:1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
Galatians 5:13 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.
Galatians 5:25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (in reverse order here).
Colossians 3:1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
Colossians 3:3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
Colossians 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
All this is true on a larger, macro scale as well. For example, in many of Paul’s epistles, a section on theology (the indicative) is followed by a section on ethics, or Christian living (the imperative). The doctrinal portion of Ephesians, for example (Eph. 1-3) is followed by an ethical portion (Eph. 4-6).
This is true in the Old Testament as well. Consider the giving of the law:
Exodus 19:3-6 Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
Israel saw what God did (the indicative of v. 4), so now they should fully obey (the imperative of v. 5).
Or consider the Decalogue itself:
Exodus 20:2-3 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.
Because of what God did (the indicative of v. 2), Israel is to obey (the imperative of v. 3ff).
This is also true of things like the taking of Canaan: God already gave Israel the land, but they were to go and take possession of it:
-Numbers 33:53 Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.
-Deuteronomy 1:8 See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the LORD swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them.
-Joshua 1:9-11 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” So Joshua ordered the officers of the people: “Go through the camp and tell the people, ‘Get your supplies ready. Three days from now you will cross the Jordan here to go in and take possession of the land the LORD your God is giving you for your own.’”
-Joshua 1:15 until they too have taken possession of the land the LORD your God is giving them.
This then is the indicative/imperative. This should help us to understand more properly just how our lives as believers are to be lived out. On the one hand God has done everything for us, and we are to rest in what he has already provided for us in Christ. But on the other hand we are faced with many hundreds of imperatives in Scripture. There is much that we are called to do.
We are to live out what God has already done for us in Christ. So he works, and we work. It is a team effort.
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