Become Who You Are: Indicatives & Imperatives of the Gospel

Our response to God in obedience is founded on, enabled by and persevered in, through our union with Christ. It is so important that we engage with the Bible’s imperatives in the full understanding of what is now true of the believer in Christ. My thanks to Todd Pruitt for this piece from Sinclair Ferguson, and likewise to Chad Bresson for his post on Elyse Fitzpatrick’s book ‘Because He Loves Me’.

Imperative – “Indicating authority or command; urgent, necessary” (Webster’s). An imperative is a statement of what one must do.

Indicative – “Designating that mood of a verb used to express an act” (Webster’s). An indicative explains what is true. It is not a command but expresses the rationale behind the command.

“The great gospel imperatives to holiness are ever rooted in indicatives of grace that are able to sustain the weight of those imperatives. The Apostles do not make the mistake that’s often made in Christian ministry. [For the Apostles] the indicatives are more powerful than the imperatives in gospel preaching. So often in our preaching our indicatives are not strong enough, great enough, holy enough, or gracious enough to sustain the power of the imperatives. And so our teaching on holiness becomes a whip or a rod to beat our people’s backs because we’ve looked at the New Testament and that’s all we ourselves have seen. We’ve seen our own failure and we’ve seen the imperatives to holiness and we’ve lost sight of the great indicatives of the gospel that sustain those imperatives. Woven into the warp and woof of the New Testament’s exposition of what it means for us to be holy is the great groundwork that the self-existent, thrice holy, triune God has — in Himself, by Himself and for Himself — committed Himself and all three Persons of His being to bringing about the holiness of His own people. This is the Father’s purpose, the Son’s purchase and the Spirit’s ministry.” – Sinclair Ferguson

From Chad Bresson:

(The relationship between the indicative and the imperative) can be “summarized in the simple phrase ‘Be who you are.’ When theologians talk about the two categories we’re about to discuss, sometimes they use these words: the indicative and the imperative…When I use the term indicative I’m talking about what has already been indicated or declared about you. The indicative informs us of an accomplished fact. Here’s an indicative statement: “God in Christ has forgiven you.”

On the other hand, the imperative comes to us in the form of a command or direction. In Ephesians 4:32, Paul gives us this command: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” The New Testament is filled with the imperative: we’re commanded to live changed lives.

The beautiful balance between the indicative (who you are in Christ) and the imperative (who you’re becoming in Christ) is perfectly demonstrated in the verse we’ve been considering. The entire verse reads, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Can you see how the imperative, “Be kind, tenderhearted and forgiving,” is firmly anchored in the indicative, “you’re forgiven in Christ”? This verse demonstrates a beautiful synergy that not only tells us what to do, but also plants within our souls the only motive that will empower God-pleasing compliance: what God has already done. We’ve already been forgiven in Christ. So many of us cavalierly gloss over what he has done and zero in on what we’re to do, and that shift, though it might seem slight, makes all the difference in the world. Our obedience has its origin in God’s prior action, and forgetting that truth results in self-righteousness, pride, and despair.

In some cases, the New Testament writers couple indicative statements with both negative and positive imperatives, in other words, commands to stop doing one thing and to start doing another. For instance, we might read this kind of a statement: Because such-and-such is true about you (the indicative), you should put off this kind of behavior (the negative imperative) and put on this kind of behavior in its place (the positive imperative). Let me give you an example of this from Colossians 3:

If then you have been raised with Christ [the indicative], seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above [a positive imperative], not on things that are on earth [a negative imperative]. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory [the indicative]. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you [a negative imperative]. . . .Put on then [a positive imperative], as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved [the indicative], compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other [a positive imperative]; as the Lord has forgiven you [the indicative], so you also must forgive [a positive imperative]. (vv. 1—5, 12—13)

Through the use of this indicative/imperative paradigm, I trust that the relationship between who you already are and how he has called you to live has become clearer to you and that it will be a tool you’ll be able to use as you study Scripture in the future.” — Elyse Fitzpatrick, “Because He Loves Me”, pp. 110-111

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

6 thoughts on “Become Who You Are: Indicatives & Imperatives of the Gospel

  1. I am enjoying your article and the website that your presentation was attached to. Can you recommend a Homoletics textbook?

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