The Indicative vs. The Imperative in the Christian Life

I bet those are two words you’ve likely never encountered in church before. What in the world do indicative and imperative have to do with Christianity? You won’t find the words in the Bible, but you will sure find what they represent, and if they get mixed up all kind of problems will creep into a Christian’s life. First let’s start with definitions, and we’ll do it in order because it matters very much which one comes first and which second in the Christian’s life.

Indicative: of, relating to, or constituting a verb form that represents the denoted act or state as an objective fact

Imperative: of, relating to, or constituting the grammatical mood that expresses the will to influence the behavior of anotherexpressive of a command, entreaty, or exhortation

In short, the indicative states something that has happened, e.g., Jesus died for our sins, and the imperative exhorts us to do something, e.g., be holy. In Christianity the former always comes before the latter because the fundamental fact of Christianity is the gospel, the good news that we are saved apart from obedience to the law. If we let the indicative come first, the law for us becomes like an unpleasant drill sergeant.

Unfortunately, the sinful human heart is always tempted to return to the law in order to gain God’s favor. Deep down we think if we only do certain things, or don’t do certain things, God will like us just a little bit more. But the good news is that God could not “like” us any more than what he already did for us in Christ. Before the whole universe he demonstrated his own love for us in this, that while we were his enemies, Christ died for us. And as Paul says elsewhere, it is because of God “that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”

Do you see the genius of this? No matter what we do or don’t do, we can never be more or less righteous, holy, or redeemed than in Christ! And far from taking this unmerited favor for granted (see Paul’s argument in Romans 6), we are driven to the cross by our guilt, cleansed of our sin by God’s grace, and filled with an ineffable gratitude that we can now have a relationship with our holy Creator God.

The possibility of a father/child relationship with God (rather than as his enemy) was opened up for us when the curtain of the Temple which barred the way into his presence, into the Holy of Holies,  was ripped in two from top to bottom as Christ died. The way has been opened by Christ’s death and resurrection regardless of our performance, and it can never be closed because “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Now we delight in God’s law because it will now not crush us in its expectation of perfection. 

Yet I must add to the unfortunately above. Much of Evangelical Christianity has turned into moralism because it gets things backward, the indicative before the imperative. The impression a non-Christian might get from many pulpits today is that the goal of Christianity is becoming a better person, or having a better marriage, or being more this, that, or the other thing. It is not about any of those things. What it’s about is the gospel! About what God did in Christ to reconcile sinful humanity to himself. Why do you think it is that Paul spends 11 chapters of Romans explaining the indicative, and only then does he get to, therefore act like a child of God.

Exhortation to be, the imperative, only comes after grasping God’s mercy, grace, goodness, and love for us in Christ. Once we get the gospel, really get it, then every fiber of our being wants to please God. The problem is that it’s really hard for sinners to do that perfectly, and that’s why we need the gospel! Wash, rinse, repeat.