There is a basic difference between the indicative and the imperative. The indicative is simply a statement of fact. the imperative is a command. The indicative states, “The book is on the table.” The imperative commands, “Put the book on the table.” The former states what is; the latter attempts to control what will be.
Many Christians mishandle the Scripture because they do not properly distinguish between the two. The central example of this is the turning of indicatives into imperatives. The Bible tells us that something is so, and we attempt to change it into a command to make something so.
The imperatives of the Bible tell me what I must do. The indicatives of the Bible tell me what has been done. When I take the message of what has been done and turn it into something that I must do, I am twisting Scripture.
It is easy to see this confusion when others are guilty of it. For example, many non-Christians cannot understand the gospel. The gospel is simply the message of what has been done for us in Christ. Non-Christians tend to make the gospel into something we have to do. “Good teacher, tell me what I must do to inherit eternal life.” The gospel is the Grand Indicative. It is the message of what has been done. The imperatives that accompany the gospel are based on a proper understanding of it. Once I understand the gospel I am told to love my wife or pray without ceasing. These are imperatives.
When the imperatives are placed before the indicative of the gospel, the result is some sort of attempt to earn salvation. When the indicative of the gospel is placed first, the result is the fruit of obedience; obedience to God’s imperatives.
But Christians also frequently misunderstand this important distinction. Paul states, “I have been crucified with Christ . . .” How often have we heard this translated into “Get crucified with Christ.” He tells us that the old sinful nature is dead. We take this to mean that the old sinful nature must be killed. Quite frankly, this doesn’t make any sense at all. Suppose we tried this methodology out on our first example. Paul tells us, “The book is on the table.” It makes no sense for us to derive from this a command, “Put the book on the table.” Such a derivation contradicts the plain meaning of the sentence.
Can any imperatives be derived from the sentence at all? Yes, of course. “Act like the book is on the table” is consistent with “The book is on the table.” This is just what Paul does. He tells us that the old man is dead (Rom. 6:6). He then tells us to act as though the old man is dead (Rom. 6:11). His imperative is based on a proper understanding of the indicative. But all too often we turn the message of what has been done into a message of what we ought to do. Then the things that we were told to do fall by the wayside because we no longer have a proper foundation for obedience. That foundation is the right understanding of what has been done for us.
God has laid that foundation for us, and He has told us what He has done. It would be best for us to leave his plain statements alone.
This article was first published in The Hammer (Vol. 4, No. 1) in the Spring of 1985. The Hammer was published by Community Christian Ministries in Moscow, Idaho.