Search this blog

The dominant mode of evangelical preaching on sanctification, the main way to motivate for godly living, sounds something like this:

You are not _____;

You should be _________;

Therefore, do or be ________!

Fill in the blank with anything good and biblical (holy; salt and light; feed the poor; walk humbly; give generously; etc.).

This is not how Paul and the other New Testament writers motivated the church in light of the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit. They did give imperatives (=what you should do), but they do so only based on indicatives (=what God has done).

The problem with the typical evangelical motivation toward radical or sacrificial living is that “imperatives divorced from indicatives become impossibilities” (to quote Tullian Tchividjian). Or another way that Tullian puts it: “gospel obligations must be based on gospel declarations.”

This “become what you are” way of speaking is strange for many us us. It seems precisely backward. But we must adjust our mental compass in order to walk this biblical path and recalibrate in order to speak this biblical language.

We see this all throughout the NT. Here are a few examples of this gospel logic and language:

"You really are unleavened" (indicative),
therefore "Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump" (imperative). [1 Cor. 5:7].

"You are not under law but under grace" and you "have been brought from death to life (indicatives),
therefore "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body. . . .
Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness,
but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness" (imperatives). [Rom. 6:12-14]

"Having been set free from sin, [you] have become slaves of righteousness (indicatives) . . .
[therefore] now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification (imperative). [Rom. 6:18-19]

"Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (indicative),
therefore, "walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh" (imperative). [Gal. 5:16, 24]

Pastor, are you encouraging your people to become who they already are in Christ Jesus?

View Comments


38 thoughts on “Imperatives – Indicatives = Impossibilities”

  1. Roy Garringer says:

    Thank you, Justin!
    Can you give the Tchividjian reference?
    Praise God for what He is doing at Coral Ridge.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Roy, it was in personal conversation.

      Hope you’re well!


      1. James says:

        Hi Lou,

        You are right, it is sad that 900 people held their personal preference higher than the preaching of the gospel and the mission of Jesus. Sometimes people will leave though, such is life.
        I would rather have the gospel go forward than try to keep all the original members there.

    2. Lou G says:

      Hi Roy, there is no doubt that Tullian is a gifted preacher, writer, and teacher. But what has happened at Coral Ridge is most certainly not a praise. Nearly 900 original members have left now due to the poorly handled merger. Regardless of who acted most badly and all of that, such a split is grievously tragic to those involved. I am praying for healing and discernment for all.

  2. I usually take it a half-step back further in the indicative, including Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The indicative isn’t simply our position in Christ, but is (more importantly) Christ for us. IOW, not only should we be encouraging our people to become who they already are in Christ Jesus, we must be reminding them of what He has already been and done for them. We *do* the imperatives, not simply because of who we are in our union with Him, but because Christ has already done the imperatives on our behalf because we couldn’t. When I can’t do any given imperative perfectly (failing miserably), I rest in the One who has. Christ’s imputed active obedience is never far from the indicative-imperative rhythm of the Pauline ethic.

    1. Chad,
      In addition, I’m always helped when pastors remind us that the final piece of what God has done is given us His Holy Spirit. God’s work in us does not end at our regeneration/justification; it begins there. The Holy Spirit empowers all of our imperatives, to the glory of God.

      I first learned of this idea of being what we are in a book called “Birthright”, by David Needham. That book, along with John Piper’s “Finally Alive”, completely, permanently transformed the way I think about sanctification, and talk about it, too. They freed me from an enormous burden of guilt and insecurity, and were also the initiators of the change I knew I needed to make, but was so utterly powerless to effect on my own.

      1. Thanks Rachel for this very helpful reminder. The Spirit not only gives life but sustains it (Romans 8, Galatians 5, etc.).

    2. Gary Horn says:

      Chad, excellent point. Evangelicals seem to minimize the importance of the sinless life that Jesus lived, keeping all of God’s commandments. We are now united to Jesus, and his righteousness is ours! Praise God!

  3. Andrew Faris says:


    To be honest, at least in Reformed circles, I find that there is an equally large problem of total fear of ever trying to live in a godly way. No one would express it like this, of course, but the “I don’t want to work my way to righteousness” attitude means that almost any time a pastor doesn’t mention the gospel before he mentions godly living, the Reformed community jumps on him for it.

    And of course there is something very right about this. But if I’m pastoring a church where I have been faithful to proclaim our total dependence on Christ’s righteousness in the gospel and I’m preaching through James, can’t I pound on the need to live a godly life? And here is exactly the problem: there are real parts of Scripture that simply don’t expound the indicative first.

    For that matter, imagine that James was a Reformed blogger and wrote his letter as a blog entry first. Can you imagine the fury of the rest of the Reformed bloggers? “There is not nearly enough gospel in here, James! How can you expect us to live godly lives when you’ve given us no gospel?!?! Justification by works? Are you mad?!?!”

    Now I don’t think that James and Paul are contradictory. But I do think that this statement: “This is not how Paul and the other New Testament writers motivated the church in light of the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit. They did give imperatives (=what you should do), but they do so only based on indicatives (=what God has done).” is mostly true, but overstated.

    Andrew Faris
    Christians in Context

    1. MarieP says:

      Andrew, but James does talk about the gospel, doesn’t he?

      James 1:8- “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” Do you think James’ hearers would have thought about Christ’s resurrection and their union with Him when they heard this?

      Actually, verse 2 includes an indicative- “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience”

      They are brethren who have assurance that the testing of their faith produces patience.

  4. A glorious read and a strengthening reminder. Thanks JT.

    I think this is a great way for pastors to shepherd their people from the pulpit. It anticipates that their congregants aspire to obedience to Christ and yet are sinners who have failed continually, and who battle with discouragement and despair because of it.

    People hear the imperatives only, and they say to themselves, “I know. I should be doing that. I’ve prayed to do be able to do that. I’ve listened to sermons, read books, but I’m still angry,” or impatient, or lustful, or envious, etc. And all along they’ve been doing it in their own strength, because no one tells them they can rest in the finished work of Christ: both His passive obedience on the Cross and, as Chad mentioned, His active obedience throughout the 33 years before the Cross.

    I can tell you from experience, it makes all the difference in the world, both as a Christian and a church member. There’s nothing that kindles love and affection in my heart for a pastor more than his pointing me away from myself and leading me to Christ.

  5. By way of encouragement to Andrew, even the book of James is not left without grounding in the Indicative, which can be found in James 1:12, 17-18, and 2:1. All of James’ imperatives can be tied to the realities found in these verses.

    1. John T. "Jack" Jeffery says:

      These great verses by Cowper are the conclusion of hymn #188 in the Gadsby Hymnal for those who aren’t familiar with it. There are four other verses that precede the two posted by Coty. Good stuff!

  6. “What shall I do,” was then the word,
    ”That I may worthier grow?”
    ”What shall I render to the Lord?”
    Is my inquiry now.

    To see the Law by Christ fulfilled,
    And hear His pardoning voice;
    Changes a slave into a child,
    And duty into choice.

    William Cowper
    (On “render to the Lord” see Ps 116:12-13)

    1. Moe Bergeron says:

      Coty, I love you man! Crossing your path here on Justin’s blog makes reading the posts all the more rewarding. – Moe

  7. Jeremy says:

    Isn’t this one discussion where hard line verbal aspect theorists jump in and say we are reading Paul wrong? Paging Andy Naselli to drop in.

  8. Jay Sanders says:

    Yet another very helpful post Justin. I now have the question, “Pastor, are you encouraging your people to become who they already are in Christ Jesus?” hanging on my desk. Thanks again bro!

  9. This can be a false dichotomy. Consider the following:

    “You really are unleavened” (indicative),
    therefore “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump” (imperative). [1 Cor. 5:7]

    Why did Paul write this? Because they weren’t living like they were unleavened. So this is what we end up with.

    “You really are unleavened” (indicative), [however, you are not living like you’re unleavened; you should be living like you’re unleavened;] therefore, cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump.”

    The only difference between the preaching advocated in this post and most evangelical preaching is that the indicative is assumed in most preaching whereas Tullian is expressing the indicative rather than assuming it. I don’t know many preachers that don’t claim to base imperatives on the indicatives of the gospel.

    One cannot make imperatives based on indicatives by simply adding or leaving out a proposition in the middle like I did above. What makes 1 Cor. 5 a beautiful gospel declaration is “for Christ, our passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”

    1. “…most evangelical preaching is that the indicative is assumed in most preaching whereas Tullian is expressing the indicative rather than assuming it. I don’t know many preachers that don’t claim to base imperatives on the indicatives of the gospel.

      But that actually gets to the heart of the problem. Preachers make claims, churches sign doctrinal statements. But there’s an enormous difference between what’s affirmed or assumed, and what’s declared, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. Ours is a faith based on remembering, because we are a people of constant forgetting. Paul’s continual refrain was “remember what you’ve been taught!!”

      And today, we have the additional problem that people haven’t been taught the indicatives of the gospel in the first place. Perhaps it’s just a geographical thing, but in my area (California Bay Area), we either have giant megachurches with sermons all about ten steps to whatever (man-centered imperatives), or we’ve got little frozen chosen churches with sermons about “Thus saith the LORD” (God-centered imperatives). Those are the ones where, no doubt, the pastor fully assumes the indicatives of the gospel, but he’s forgotten that he’s as forgetful as his people, and he doesn’t declare it.

      Then, praise God, there’s my church, which is Reformed, but most of the people coming don’t know it, because they’re refugess from those other kinds of churches, and all they know is they’re hearing about the true freeing power of the gospel for what feels like the first time and, what do you know, they’re changing. Oh, and I’m changing too. :)

  10. mgvh says:

    One of my favorites demonstrating your point is John 13.34 where Jesus says:
    Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

  11. Andy Naselli says:

    Jeremy writes, “Isn’t this one discussion where hard line verbal aspect theorists jump in and say we are reading Paul wrong? Paging Andy Naselli to drop in.”

    Justin just paged me.

    Short answer: not necessarily.

    Case in point: Stanley E. Porter, one of the most prominent proponents of verbal aspect theory for NT Greek, reduces Paul’s complex notion of sanctification this way: “The believer both lives in holiness and grows into holiness” (“Holiness, Sanctification,” DPHL, 399).

  12. This is probably the single most important thing I learned in seminary. Thanks Dr. Douglass!


  13. MatthewS says:

    Thank you.

    This has a similar affect for me (including hope, inspiration, encouragement) as the recently linked post by Kevin DeYoung. He was quoted: Because the secret of the gospel is that we actually do more when we hear less about all we need to do for God and hear more about all that God has already done for us.

  14. Andy Naselli says:

    Follow-up (I hit “post” premature): Here’s the entirety of Stan Porter’s section on this issue (DPHL, p. 401)

    4. The Problem of the Indicative and Imperative.

    In describing Pauline ethics, scholars frequently refer to the tension between the indicative and the imperative. This has come to mean two different things. Bultmann proposed that the imperative (ethical command) proceeds out of the indicative (statement of theological truth), with the idea that Christians should “become what they are.” E. Käsemann rejects this when he argues that the believer is simultaneously in two realms: obedience is a requirement for maintaining the condition of faith.

    Despite its enshrinement in the secondary literature, indicative/imperative language is potentially misleading, since “indicative” and “imperative” are strictly speaking grammatical labels for two of the Greek verbal mood forms (it was in this sense that they were originally used in discussion of Pauline ethics). Sometimes they are used in parallel constructions, at other times they are not. The indicative-imperative construct is in actual fact a theological paradigm, in which the two grammatical forms play some part. In Romans 6:1–23 Paul gives a series of exhortations predicated upon a description of the believer’s condition (a passage frequently referred to in illustrating the indicative-imperative terminology). But Romans 6:1–11 contains a variety of verbs used in the description of the Christian, including future forms (which are arguably not “indicatives”), subjunctives (hortatory and other uses), infinitives and participles. And Romans 6:12–23 contains verbs other than imperatives regarding attainment of the believer’s anticipated condition. In fact, following the imperatives in Romans 6:12 and 13, there are few other imperatives in the section.

    Rather than using potentially misleading indicative-imperative terminology, scholars would be better served by the use of narrative ethics to describe the tension in Pauline ethics between Paul’s description of the believer’s current condition (as justified) and his ethical appeal (for sanctification). Scholars have been using a form of narrative ethics, despite their terminology, by virtue of the fact that they do not (and cannot) insist upon a strict use of indicative-imperative forms. For Paul, ethical discourse is more than simply an appeal to grammatical forms to establish moral directives, but a set of directives for behavior which derive from description of the believer’s condition in Christ. The force of Paul’s directives will be judged on how well he has adequately described (to the satisfaction of his audience) his audience’s condition in Christ, or has narrated the story of Christ (see Christology).

    1. Bruce Russell says:

      It’s not that complicated: the ground of all Christian obedience is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Justification occurs EACH time a believer confesses and receives forgiveness for his sins. The pattern of justification is illustrated by Paul in Romans 4. Abraham believes in the God who justifies the ungodly (in this case gentile Abraham), David is forgiven for his adultery and murder. God’s condemnation for sin has reached into history at the cross, glorification has reached into history at conversion where believers experience a foretaste of glory. Neither Old or New Covenant obedience require moral perfection, they both require obedience of faith….so, having been justified from faithfulness we have peace with God!

    2. John T. "Jack" Jeffery says:

      A rose by any other name…While I readily grant the point that “…“indicative” and “imperative” are strictly speaking grammatical labels for two of the Greek verbal mood forms”…” and may have the potential to be misleading, I would respond that the same may be said for many other “labels” theologians have put to use. Resorting to “directives” and “descriptions” may appear to be a solution, but at the end of the day, any “exhortation” or “directive” without some type of an “imperative” neither exhorts nor directs. A “description” without an “indicative” would fall short of being a “description” in the very nature of the case. More could be said about the indicative force of the future as presented often in the New Testament in an “already/not yet” framework. Also, the imperatival force of infinitives and participles has been recognized by no less a New Testament scholar than A. T. Robertson (cp. his “Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research”, Nashville: Broadman, 1934, pp. 942-946 on the “Alternatives for the Imperative”.) Perhaps it is just me, but I fail to see how a “narrative ethics” that is worthy of the name can divorce itself from “indicative/imperative language” even when the specific labels are jettisoned. A rose by any other name…

  15. Andrew Faris says:

    To those who expressed their concern about my use of James, your point is taken, and again, let me reiterate that I don’t see contradiction between James and Paul, and that I recognize that James does mention the gospel!

    But surely it is not so prominent in his letter, right? My point is only one about emphasis, namely that the Reformed community regularly falls into the trap of being overly wary of trying to do good works at all. Check out the comment thread in the post on TGC about Francis Chan’s “Middle Road of Evangelicalism” for evidence of this.

    Andrew Faris
    Christians in Context

  16. David Dorr says:

    Just read this on why strong people shouldn’t look down or complain about “weak” people in Romans 15. We bear with the weak because Christ bore our reproach. Great stuff.

  17. Derek says:

    Good stuff. Thanks for posting this!

    I just recently read a sermon by Lloyd-Jones on 1 John 3:2 where he says something very similar:

    “The bible never asks us to do anything without reminding us first of who we are; you always get doctrine before practical exhortation”

  18. pduggie says:

    Does this work

    Indicative “But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

    Imperative “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.”


    Indicative “that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.”

    Imperative “If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down,”


    Indicative “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

    Imperative “You shall have no other gods before me.”


    Indicative “you were strangers in the land of Egypt”

    Imperative “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself”

  19. Alex Brodine says:

    I hear Tim Keller doing this a lot in his preaching. He will often organize his message around, “Here’s what you need to do, but you’re not doing it and in fact you can’t do it. You will never be able to do this until you see what Christ has done/who Christ has made you”.

  20. What JT presents is developed more fully in The Race Set Before Us.

  21. Thanks for this post,
    I find alot when I’m preaching that I do this “you need to do this, you need to do that…” without saying something that I KNOW but just make the mistake of NOT SAYING is “God made you this way; now live it out!”. It’s a really great thing to be able to say to the people that I speak to “It’s not about you! It’s about God living THROUGH you.” It’s certainly more certain and effective.


  22. Moe – I hope our paths cross sometime soon – Coty

  23. Moe Bergeron says:

    My Brother Coty,

    Our paths will one day join. That’s assured in Christ.

Comments are closed.

Search this blog


Justin Taylor photo

Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

Justin Taylor's Books