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Is this a strange title, or what?

Let me begin by introducing you to the indicative-imperative principle.

Consider parents who demand their children do something light-years beyond their abilities. Perhaps these parents want their children to fail, to be discouraged and humiliated, or just to discover their limitations. Either way, it is a cruel and demoralizing thing to do to any child. This is the imperative without the indicative.

Now consider another parent who provides his children with all the guidance and resources necessary to complete an otherwise impossible task successfully. That is like our heavenly Father. This is the imperative with the indicative.

Let me explain.

Some Greek grammar

A verb or action word has tense, voice, and mood. We are focusing on the mood.

One expert describes mood as “the feature of the verb that presents the verbal action or state with reference to its actuality or potentiality” (Wallace, 443).


Wait. Please don’t fade out on me—it is just a little bit of grammar, and it’s essential.

In simple terms, the indicative mood presents the action as certain or actual. The imperative mood means the action is intended. We usually think of an imperative in terms of command but think of it in terms of what the command intends and expects you to be or do.

Here is a summary:

  • Indicative is about an action that is certain or actual.
  • Imperative is about an action that is intended.

Adopting one of our initial illustrations, our heavenly Father links what He intends us to do (i.e., complete the impossible task) with what is already actual or certain (i.e., all the guidance and resources necessary to complete that otherwise impossible task).

We are enabled to fulfill His imperatives by the resources of His indicatives.

As James Dunn puts it in The Theology of Paul the Apostle (630):

the indicative is the necessary presupposition and starting point for the imperative. What Christ has done is the basis for what the believer must do.

Got it? If not, don’t worry.

Let’s look at a few examples to illustrate this principle.

Some examples

The New Testament is full of texts that link the indicative with an imperative.

Here is an example.

Paul writes to Christians in Corinth who were accommodating an immoral sexual relationship within their church community. Here’s what he says to them (1 Corinthians 5:6-7 NASB):

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out [imperative] the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened [indicative]. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed [indicative].

Here is David Garland’s analysis of this text in his commentary, 1 Corinthians (179):

The imperative to cleanse out the old leaven is predicated on the indicative: they are unleavened. In other words, Paul tells them to be what they are, to live like Christians. Who they are is revealed in what they do. What they do comes from who they are.

Here is another example from Philippians 2:12-13:

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out [imperative] your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is [indicative] God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

This text is not about “working for” salvation; it is about followers of Jesus “working out” the salvation they already possess. God is at work in them (indicative). They are to “work out” (imperative) God’s salvation (i.e., live as God intends).

Based on the indicative of God working in these Christians, Peter O’Brien comments in The Epistle to the Philippians (280) about the imperative:

an exhortation to common action [imperative], urging the Philippians to show forth the graces of Christ in their lives, to make their eternal salvation fruitful in the here and now as they fulfil their responsibilities to one another as well as to non-Christians.

I hope these two examples help in your understanding of this indicative-imperative principle. God is at work in Christians—that is certain (indicative); so, Christians are to work out who He intends us to be and what He intends us to do (imperative).

What does this have to do with loving like Jesus?

Understanding this indicative-imperative principle will help us grasp how we are to love like Jesus.

In the previous post, I pointed out the repeated command of Jesus to His followers (John 13:34; 15:12):

that you love one another, just as I have loved you.

In the context of John 13-17, this command—this imperative—is linked with numerous indicatives. Here is one (14:15-17):

“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.” 

Our Lord has commanded us to love one another just as He loves us. “Impossible,” we say.

Then he says, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” Again, we say, “Impossible!”

But then we notice an indicative—a certainty—that provides the needed guidance and resources:

            the Father … will give [indicative] you another Helper … the Spirit of truth

What was then in the future to the disciples is now in the present for us. The Spirit of truth—the indwelling Holy Spirit—is one certainty that guides and empowers us to complete an otherwise impossible imperative successfully.

You may have questions or comments about this post. If so, please write to me.

In the next post, we will identify more of these certainties that enable and empower followers of Jesus to love like Him.

FORWARD TO Love Like Jesus

BACK TO What does love look like?

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