The Indicative and Imperative Moods

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Author: 
Gary DeLashmutt and Dennis McCallum

The terms "indicative" and "imperative" refer to two different verb moods commonly used by the New Testament authors in their teaching on sanctification.

What is a Verb Mood?

The mood of a verb designates the relationship of the verb's action relative to reality. The following is a simple list of moods of verbs in the New Testament and what they generally signify:

  1. indicative - mood of certainty, actuality
  2. subjunctive - mood of probability
  3. optative - mood of possibility
  4. imperative - mood of command

As the list indicates, the New Testament uses indicative statements when discussing what God has done, is doing or will do. Imperative statements are used when saying what we should do. It is important to realize, not only that both moods are present in the Bible, but that there is a specific relationship between these two moods in the area of sanctification. Namely, what God commands us to do (the imperative) is based upon what he has done, is doing or will do (the indicatives). God is signifying by this consistent pattern that sanctification depends on God, but involves human volition and cooperation.


Examples

In the following examples, the imperative mood is bolded, while the indicative is in italics. Romans 6:1-19 and 8:1-13 are two of the best examples of this relationship, covered in detail in Walking in Victory.

Philippians 2:12b-13

. . .work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

In this example, we see that the imperative command to work out our salvation is based on the fact that God is at work in us. The use of the word "for" indicates dependence or causality.

Colossians 3:1-17 Colossians 3:1-16

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly thingsFor you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatryBecause of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each othersince you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your heartssince as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Again, by looking at the linkage between the statements (e.g. words like "since" "for" "as" and "because"), you will notice the imperatives are dependent on indicative statements. When we consider the thought development in this passage we realize Paul is at pains to regularly remind his readers of the basis for each ethical instruction.

Hebrews 10:19-25

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of Godlet us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

In this passage, no fewer than five separate imperatives are tied to two wonderful indicatives: our confidence to enter the holy place by the new way, and our great high priest. Notice the word "since" before both indicative statements, indicating that they provide the basis for the imperatives to follow.

Ephesians 4:32

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each otherjust as in Christ God forgave you.

It is because God has forgiven us that we should forgive others. Compare this to the statement in Matthew 6:14,15, where God's forgiveness is conditional on our forgiving others. The formulation in Matthew is typical of the sermon on the mount, with teaches the true nature of the law. There, the imperative is the condition for God's forgiveness, not a response to it.

Dynamic Relationship

The New Testament also teaches that, although the imperatives are based upon the indicatives, in many cases the experience of the indicatives is dependent upon our willingness to respond to the imperatives by faith. In other words, if I fail to act in faith based on what God has commanded, I may not experience the reality of my position in Christ. Of course my position is no less real, but I may not experience it in the way God wants me to.

This corrects a common misconception among Christians: that even after we have understood God's promises, we should wait until we experience God's power, forgiveness, etc. before we act on what He says to do. On the contrary, we must act in the knowledge of the indicatives before we actually sense or experience the truth. Thus, the biblical order is not LEARN - EXPERIENCE - ACT, but rather LEARN - ACT - EXPERIENCE. This also corrects the erroneous position that man's response is not important in sanctification. Of course, our experience is not unimportant either, especially when it is understood in its proper place.

Examples - You may enjoy examining this relationship in the following passages:

  • Romans 12:1
  • John 13:17
  • 1 Pet. 2:2
  • Romans 6:15
  • 1 Pet. 3:7
  • Romans 8:4-13
  • 1 John 3:14,18,19
  • Galatians 5:16-23
  • Jas. 1:21-24
  • 1 Peter 2:9-12
  • 2 Peter 1:3-9
  • 1 John. 4:19