Indicative and The Imperative
A Reformation View of
©1996 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
What do we mean when we say that we're "saved"? In Scripture,
salvation concerns three realities: First, we have been saved. By his
atoning death Christ secured our acceptance before God and when we placed
our trust in Christ we were immediately justified and adopted. "There
is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."
But we are also being saved. At the same moment that the Holy Spirit
creates faith by the preaching of the Gospel the believer is truly changed
and his sanctification has already begun. Justification is a once-and-for-all
declaration of right-standing because of an imputed righteousness; sanctification
is a progressive growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus
Christ through an imparted righteousness. As living branches of the
Savior's Vine, we immediately begin to bear the fruit of the Spirit,
although others may be more aware of it than are we. Justification is
instantaneous, objective and complete. Sanctification is progressive,
subjective and partial. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, "For
even the holiest of Christians make only a small beginning in obedience
in this life. Nevertheless, they begin with serious purpose to conform
not only to some, but to all the commandments of God." The Westminster
Confessions adds, "Even our best works, as they are wrought by
us, are defiled and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection that
they cannot endure the severity of God's judgment." The question
arises, then, why pursue good works at all? Why should we even be interested
From the biblical point of view, sanctification is not a matter of
holiness as an end in itself. It would be selfish for us to focus our
whole lives on our own growth and improvement, so the Scriptures constantly
point us outside of ourselves, to love and serve God and our neighbor.
So much of contemporary spirituality is individualistic, private, and
self-centered: How can I be happy? How can I find victory? How can I
reach the "higher life"? Instead, biblical piety is concerned
with working out the implications of what God has already done in Christ.
So, tonight, as our first in a series on sanctification and the work
of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, we want to take a look
at the framework that the Bible itself gives us for understanding this
vital link between Christ's life for us and his life in us.
But first we have to get a lay of the land. Categories are essential
in understanding Scripture. These are not categories that we simply
impose on the text of Scripture, but categories that rise naturally
out of Scripture. Our first category is the distinction between the
indicative and the imperative in Scripture. Referring to moods in the
Greek, the indicative is a declaration of what God has done and of who
we are in Christ as a result. It defines us. For instance, if a neighbor
going on vacation were to ask, "Is Fred a good person with whom
to leave my pet Iguana?", and Fred's friend replied, "Fred
is a veterinarian," that reply would be indicative of Fred's reliability.
Similarly, when Paul asks, "Should we continue to sin that grace
may abound?", his answer is, "Heaven forbid! How shall we
who have died to sin live any longer in it." He goes on to ask,
"Do you not know that you were baptized into Christ?" In other
words, it is incongruous for a person who is baptized into Christ to
go on living in sin so that grace may abound. Baptism into Christ defines
the believer and has given him or her an entirely new identity. It is
that identity that reorients behavior. That is to say, theology leads
to ethics, doctrine shapes life. As G. C. Berkouwer has said, "Grace
is the essence of theology and gratitude is the essence of ethics."
Once we know who we are in Christ, the commands of Scripture begin to
That leads to the second category, the imperative. If the indicative
tells us who we are already in Christ, the imperative instructs us in
how we should therefore live out that new reality. If certain traits
are expected of a veterinarian, so too there are certain effects of
being in Christ. Throughout the New Testament epistles especially, we
find doctrinal sections followed by ethical sections, divided by one
simple conjunction: "therefore." For instance, in Romans six,
after Paul unpacks the indicative--who we are already in Christ--he
turns to the practical effects: "Therefore, do not let sin reign
in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer
the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather
offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to
life" (Ro. 6:12-13).
Too often, we confuse the indicative and imperative. One way of doing
this is to refer to "steps to salvation," confusing the Law
and the Gospel, as if faith were not sufficient for union with Christ
and the reception of all his benefits, including the Holy Spirit. Another
way of doing this is to reverse the order, as if one attained the status
implied in the indicative by following the commands of the imperative
mood. But the pattern of the New Testament is consistent: First the
indicative, followed by the imperative. It is not only followed by Paul
in his epistles. For instance, Peter first tells believers that they
are living stones being built up into Christ's temple, chosen and holy
because of their union with Christ (the indicative). Only then does
he say, "Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the
world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul"
(1 Pet. 2:11). Those who reverse this order will be forever enrolled
in programs and strategies for reaching "the victorious life"
and the "filling of the Spirit," because they believe that
the promise is held out on condition of fulfilling certain conditions
or obeying certain commands, whether "surrendering," "yielding,"
"letting go and letting God," or any number of approaches.
Paul's entire argument in Romans six rests on the fact that something
has already happened. He does not say, "If you yield your body
to righteousness, you will die to sin," but rather, "For we
know that our old self was crucified with him" (v.6). He does not
say, "Make sure that sin does not master you," as many believe
that sin can master a so-called "carnal" Christian. Rather,
he states, "For sin shall not be your master, because you are not
under law, but under grace" (v.14).
The objective determines the subjective, the divine announcement of
what has already been done for and to the believer in Christ dictates
the Christian life. As Sinclair Ferguson observes, "The determining
factor of my existence is no longer my past. It is Christ's past."
[Five Views, p.57] But in many popular approaches, it is the other way
around: Those who sufficiently yield, surrender and obey enter into
the "higher life," whether that refers to sanctification or
the gifts of the Holy Spirit. For Paul, such gifts are given immediately
in Christ and worked out in the believer's life, while for many today
as in every age, these gifts are the prize for the believer's success.
Pelagianism is the ancient heresy that sees Christ chiefly in terms
of a resource. Human beings are basically neutral, free to choose for
themselves whether they will be saved. A scheme of works-righteousness,
it makes the success of God's work to depend on whether we will "make
use of" God's power, in much the same way as one might make use
of an appliance. But God does not merely help us to save ourselves,
rather he himself accomplished our redemption. As the prophet Isaiah
recorded, "I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled
that no one gave support; so my own arm worked salvation for me..."
In fulfillment of this passage, Christ himself said, "For them
I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified" (John
17:19). Christ is our righteousness, "holiness" and redemption
(1Cor. 1:30). He himself lived a spotless life, and this is "true
sanctification" for us. Let us live in this holiness, and do good
works out of gratitude to God for such a great redemption.
Questions for Further Reflection:
1. How do we relate the indicative to the active obedience of Christ?
2. Before we talk about progressive sanctification, isn't there a
sense in Scripture in which sanctification is also objective and instantaneous?
3. In Rom. chapter 6, Paul speaks of our "union with christ":
What does this mean? Does it provide everything we need for life and
4. Jesus said he was the vine and we are the branches and that if
we are united to him, we will bearing fruit. The indicative precedes
the imperative: You are my branches precedes, "Go therefore and
bear fruit." What happens when we reverse the indicative and
imperative? Or confuse them?
5. What role does baptism have in this union with Christ (Rom. 6)?
6. When we find imperatives or commands in Scripture, do these provide
the power to carry them out? Where must we go in order to find the
source of our strength to live the Christian life? If my faith is
low or if I am living in rebellion in an area of my life, should I
look to the imperative or to the indicative for stronger faith and
more faithful obedience?
Dr. Michael Horton is the vice chairman of the Council of the
Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical
theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Dr. Horton is a graduate
of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.)
and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited
include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power
Religion, In the Face of God, and most recently, We Believe.