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Understanding Gospel Indicatives & Imperatives

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“I’d like to be baptized someday but I don’t think I’m ready yet. I need more time.” I’ve heard statements along these lines several times. Those making this sort of statement wrongly believe that they must first be good enough before receiving the salvation that Christ offers them. Some have parents enforcing this false belief. Others grew up in congregations that focused more on how the Bible commands Jesus-followers to live and less (or not at all) on what Jesus Christ has already accomplished on their behalf. In effect, these individuals believe they have to fulfill gospel imperatives without first embracing gospel indicatives.

What are indicatives and imperatives?

If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, let me simplify them:

Gospel indicatives = What God has already done on your behalf in Christ.

Gospel imperatives = What you are to do as a result of being in Christ. 1

The whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, points to Jesus Christ stepping in to receive the full penalty of our sins in our place so that through Him we can be restored to God in righteousness and purity. This is an indicative; truth. A statement of what is, of what God has already done for us through Christ. By placing our faith in Jesus Christ and receiving the restoration He freely offers we also receive His grace to free us to live obediently as righteous and pure disciples. Our obedience is the exhortation. It is what we are to do as a result of being in Christ. 2 3

To say that we must live out the imperatives of obedience in order to receive the indicative of His gospel is wrong theology.

Is there an order to indicatives and imperatives?

Indicatives precede imperatives. Who we are and what we do always come after who God is and what He has done. God, through Christ, initiates relationship with us. We, through Christ, respond to God’s initiation. We can accept His initiation and then, restored in Christ, live transformed in His likeness. Or, we can reject His initiation and continue to live for our own glory. But we cannot live obediently enough to save ourselves. There is no possibility for us to ever earn God’s favor, let alone eternal salvation (Romans 3:23-24). We desperately, unequivocally need Jesus Christ for relationship with the Father, for salvation, and for obedience (John 14:6).

We can't live obediently enough to save ourselves. We unequivocally need Jesus Christ. - Caitlin Meadows Click To Tweet

The indicative always precedes in reality, even when it follows in writing.

But what about when imperatives clearly precede indicatives in Scripture?

Israel Steinmetz offers the following insight concerning this:

There are times when the imperative precedes the indicative in a given letter, paragraph, or sentence. In such cases, the imperative is being given first, however, it is still based on an indicative that precedes it in reality. Here’s an example of what I mean:

‘Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us,’ (Ephesians 5:1-2b).

This passage is in the imperative portion of Paul’s letter to Ephesus, but in this sentence Paul refers back to indicative groundwork he laid in the first three chapters. He gives the Ephesians two commands/imperatives- ‘imitate God as beloved children’ and ‘walk in love’. But he then draws these imperatives back to their indicative source, ‘just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us”. So, even where Paul begins with an imperative he is always thinking back to the indicative that precedes it.

This is significant because it is a reminder that God is always the source, always the one who initiates. Every time we’re commanded to love we should remember that God loved us first, an act which gave us the ability and urgency to love one another. God initiates, we are changed and respond. This is the significance of the indicative/imperative relationship. Regardless of which one is stated first or even if we state them independently, they are intimately related to one another and the indicative always precedes the imperative in reality, even if not in our writing/speech.”

Is there a balance to indicatives and imperatives?

Now that we’ve established that the indicative always precedes the imperative, the question becomes one of balance. Is one or the other more important? This is, perhaps, an even more controversial question among believers than the question of order.

Are gospel indicatives and imperatives equally balanced? No.

Because the indicatives always precede the imperatives, the indicatives are of greater value than the imperatives. God initiates (indicatives). This initiation, complete with His grace, enables His followers to respond through obedience to the imperatives. 4  In other words, without His indicatives, the imperatives are impossible and pointless (Galatians 2:16 & 21). Instead of questioning their balance, our attention can be turned to their inseparable relationship.

Inseparable elements of Christ’s gospel.

Theologian Victor Paul Furnish explains this inseparable relationship between gospel indicatives and imperatives:

Paul understands these two dimensions of the gospel [indicative and imperative] in such a way that, though they are not absolutely identified, they are closely and necessarily associated. God’s claim is regarded by the apostle as a constitutive part of God’s gift. The Pauline concept of grace is inclusive of the Pauline concept of obedience…

How can this be? The answer is found in Paul’s view that the believer, who on the basis of his faith has been rightwised, thereby belongs to a new realm. He stands under the aegis and hegemony of a new Sovereign. He has been given not just the possibility of a new life, but an actually and totally new existence…

In Christ he has been engaged, renewed, and restored by the creative and redemptive power of God’s love. Moreover, in Christ he knows that redemption is not just deliverance from the hostile powers to which he was formerly enslaved, but freedom for obedience to God.  For Paul, obedience is neither preliminary to the new life (as its condition) nor secondary to it (as its result and eventual fulfillment). Obedience is constitutive of the new life.5(Emphasis added.)

Responding to God’s Initiation

As a result of this relationship between gospel indicatives and imperatives, we know our proper place before the Lord. We are not to live in an attempt to earn His favor. Living this way either leads to prideful self-righteousness or fearful distance between ourselves and our Heavenly Father. Rather, we are to live in response to God’s initiation through Christ. Which means heeding gospel imperatives as a loving response to gospel indicatives. We obey God out of love because He loved us first. Even more, His grace operating in and through us enables our obedience.

Our obedience is motivated by love for God because He loved us first. - Caitlin Meadows Click To Tweet

Good Enough?

When a person says they’re waiting until they’re ready to give their life to the Lord or be good enough for a public proclamation of having done so someday, this is the truth they need to know: someday will never arrive. Today is the day. Because Jesus has already accomplished their salvation. He has already finished the work. All they must do is respond to His initiation in faith. In faith they can embrace gospel indicatives and proceed through His grace and in love to live out gospel imperatives. Because it is Christ who is re-creating them, causing the old to fall away and the new to come.


As followers of Christ, re-created by Him to lead on His behalf in our daily spheres, it is vital that we study, understand, and embrace His gospel. This is one of the first steps to embracing our role as Christian leaders in our everyday lives. You can also become better equipped in your daily influence for Christ by taking advantage of the following resources:

Disclaimer: This article is an editorial and represents the views and opinions of its author. It does not serve as an 'official' statement of the views of Artios Magazine or its sponsors.

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Notes:

  1. https://www.xenos.org/essays/indicative-and-imperative-moods
  2. Ibid.
  3. Throughout this article when I refer to gospel indicatives and imperatives, I am referring to the Scriptures that teach not only of Christ’s death and resurrection, but also of repentance, restoration, and sanctification.
  4. Further, for those who respond with acceptance of Christ’s indicatives just before their death, their lack of time to obediently live out gospel imperatives is of no consequence. (Luke 23:39-43)
  5. Victor Paul Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968), 224-226.

About Caitlin Meadows

Caitlin Meadows
Born and raised in Lodi, California, Caitlin now resides in west Michigan with her (amazingly supportive) husband, Adam, their one year old son, Hudson, and their rambunctious chiweenie, Stella. They will welcome baby #2 in November 2018. Caitlin earned her Bachelor of Science in Communication in 2011. Writing reflective pieces on life and faith has been her outlet since her teens. While enjoying mommyhood, Caitlin has the privilege of working from home as the Communications Coordinator of Artios Christian College and the Assistant Editor of ArtiosMagazine.org. Through every unexpected twist and turn of her life, Christ has been her constant stronghold as she lives every day with hope and expectancy of His awesome guidance!