The Indicative and The Imperative A Reformation View of Sanctification

by Michael S. Horton

©1996 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals

What do we mean when we say that we're "saved"? In Scripture, salvation concerns three realities: First, we have been saved. By his atoning death Christ secured our acceptance before God and when we placed our trust in Christ we were immediately justified and adopted. "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." But we are also being saved. At the same moment that the Holy Spirit creates faith by the preaching of the Gospel the believer is truly changed and his sanctification has already begun. Justification is a once-and-for-all declaration of right-standing because of an imputed righteousness; sanctification is a progressive growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ through an imparted righteousness. As living branches of the Savior's Vine, we immediately begin to bear the fruit of the Spirit, although others may be more aware of it than are we. Justification is instantaneous, objective and complete. Sanctification is progressive, subjective and partial. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, "For even the holiest of Christians make only a small beginning in obedience in this life. Nevertheless, they begin with serious purpose to conform not only to some, but to all the commandments of God." The Westminster Confessions adds, "Even our best works, as they are wrought by us, are defiled and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection that they cannot endure the severity of God's judgment." The question arises, then, why pursue good works at all? Why should we even be interested in sanctification?

From the biblical point of view, sanctification is not a matter of holiness as an end in itself. It would be selfish for us to focus our whole lives on our own growth and improvement, so the Scriptures constantly point us outside of ourselves, to love and serve God and our neighbor. So much of contemporary spirituality is individualistic, private, and self-centered: How can I be happy? How can I find victory? How can I reach the "higher life"? Instead, biblical piety is concerned with working out the implications of what God has already done in Christ. So, tonight, as our first in a series on sanctification and the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, we want to take a look at the framework that the Bible itself gives us for understanding this vital link between Christ's life for us and his life in us.

But first we have to get a lay of the land. Categories are essential in understanding Scripture. These are not categories that we simply impose on the text of Scripture, but categories that rise naturally out of Scripture. Our first category is the distinction between the indicative and the imperative in Scripture. Referring to moods in the Greek, the indicative is a declaration of what God has done and of who we are in Christ as a result. It defines us. For instance, if a neighbor going on vacation were to ask, "Is Fred a good person with whom to leave my pet Iguana?", and Fred's friend replied, "Fred is a veterinarian," that reply would be indicative of Fred's reliability. Similarly, when Paul asks, "Should we continue to sin that grace may abound?", his answer is, "Heaven forbid! How shall we who have died to sin live any longer in it." He goes on to ask, "Do you not know that you were baptized into Christ?" In other words, it is incongruous for a person who is baptized into Christ to go on living in sin so that grace may abound. Baptism into Christ defines the believer and has given him or her an entirely new identity. It is that identity that reorients behavior. That is to say, theology leads to ethics, doctrine shapes life. As G. C. Berkouwer has said, "Grace is the essence of theology and gratitude is the essence of ethics." Once we know who we are in Christ, the commands of Scripture begin to make sense.

That leads to the second category, the imperative. If the indicative tells us who we are already in Christ, the imperative instructs us in how we should therefore live out that new reality. If certain traits are expected of a veterinarian, so too there are certain effects of being in Christ. Throughout the New Testament epistles especially, we find doctrinal sections followed by ethical sections, divided by one simple conjunction: "therefore." For instance, in Romans six, after Paul unpacks the indicative--who we are already in Christ--he turns to the practical effects: "Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life" (Ro. 6:12-13).

Too often, we confuse the indicative and imperative. One way of doing this is to refer to "steps to salvation," confusing the Law and the Gospel, as if faith were not sufficient for union with Christ and the reception of all his benefits, including the Holy Spirit. Another way of doing this is to reverse the order, as if one attained the status implied in the indicative by following the commands of the imperative mood. But the pattern of the New Testament is consistent: First the indicative, followed by the imperative. It is not only followed by Paul in his epistles. For instance, Peter first tells believers that they are living stones being built up into Christ's temple, chosen and holy because of their union with Christ (the indicative). Only then does he say, "Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul" (1 Pet. 2:11). Those who reverse this order will be forever enrolled in programs and strategies for reaching "the victorious life" and the "filling of the Spirit," because they believe that the promise is held out on condition of fulfilling certain conditions or obeying certain commands, whether "surrendering," "yielding," "letting go and letting God," or any number of approaches. Paul's entire argument in Romans six rests on the fact that something has already happened. He does not say, "If you yield your body to righteousness, you will die to sin," but rather, "For we know that our old self was crucified with him" (v.6). He does not say, "Make sure that sin does not master you," as many believe that sin can master a so-called "carnal" Christian. Rather, he states, "For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace" (v.14).

The objective determines the subjective, the divine announcement of what has already been done for and to the believer in Christ dictates the Christian life. As Sinclair Ferguson observes, "The determining factor of my existence is no longer my past. It is Christ's past." [Five Views, p.57] But in many popular approaches, it is the other way around: Those who sufficiently yield, surrender and obey enter into the "higher life," whether that refers to sanctification or the gifts of the Holy Spirit. For Paul, such gifts are given immediately in Christ and worked out in the believer's life, while for many today as in every age, these gifts are the prize for the believer's success. Pelagianism is the ancient heresy that sees Christ chiefly in terms of a resource. Human beings are basically neutral, free to choose for themselves whether they will be saved. A scheme of works-righteousness, it makes the success of God's work to depend on whether we will "make use of" God's power, in much the same way as one might make use of an appliance. But God does not merely help us to save ourselves, rather he himself accomplished our redemption. As the prophet Isaiah recorded, "I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support; so my own arm worked salvation for me..." In fulfillment of this passage, Christ himself said, "For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified" (John 17:19). Christ is our righteousness, "holiness" and redemption (1Cor. 1:30). He himself lived a spotless life, and this is "true sanctification" for us. Let us live in this holiness, and do good works out of gratitude to God for such a great redemption.

Questions for Further Reflection:

1. How do we relate the indicative to the active obedience of Christ?
2. Before we talk about progressive sanctification, isn't there a sense in Scripture in which sanctification is also objective and instantaneous?
3. In Rom. chapter 6, Paul speaks of our "union with christ": What does this mean? Does it provide everything we need for life and godliness?
4. Jesus said he was the vine and we are the branches and that if we are united to him, we will bearing fruit. The indicative precedes the imperative: You are my branches precedes, "Go therefore and bear fruit." What happens when we reverse the indicative and imperative? Or confuse them?
5. What role does baptism have in this union with Christ (Rom. 6)?
6. When we find imperatives or commands in Scripture, do these provide the power to carry them out? Where must we go in order to find the source of our strength to live the Christian life? If my faith is low or if I am living in rebellion in an area of my life, should I look to the imperative or to the indicative for stronger faith and more faithful obedience?

By Topic


By Scripture

Old Testament









1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles








Song of Solomon


















New Testament







1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John



By Author

Latest Links